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Do Former Partners of Troubled Firms Have Survivor Guilt?

Jan. 13, 2016, 7:12 PM

New Year, new firm. Along with juice cleanses and ambitious exercise routines, the early days of January bring a burst of partner moves among the Am Law 200 firms. This year is no exception .

A lateral move offers the opportunity of a fresh start, but leaving one firm for another is often an emotionally loaded transaction.

Foremost in the minds of many lateral partners is the question, “‘Am I doing the right thing?’” says Lyndon Parker, Managing Director of JD Search Advisors. “People don’t want to wind up going through the same thought pattern three or four years down the road.”

And as with any long-term relationship, breaking up can ignite a range of feelings. “There can be anger, depression, sadness, glee. The whole spectrum,” says Parker of lawyers transitioning out of firms.

Sentiments often run particularly high in the case of a mass exodus from a troubled firm, where leaving colleagues behind may feel a little like boarding the last life boats off the Titanic.

“If you have business, you have the leverage to leave,” says D.C.-based recruiter Ivan Adler. “But not everybody has the opportunity to leave, and those that get out feel badly for the people left behind. It’s a legitimate human feeling.”

Indeed, “traumatic” is how one partner described parting ways with long term colleagues when he left Dickstein Shapiro in 2014.

Beset by partner defections, Dickstein’s ranks have dwindled to fewer than 150 lawyers from a high of approximately 400 in 2008. The firm has continued to shed attorneys since merger talks with Bryan Cave fell off , most recently with the last of Dickstein’s Los Angeles office decamping to Eisner Jaffe .

To be sure, the final chapter on Dickstein Shapiro has not yet been written. Other firms also experienced significant drops in headcount in this lateral market, and Dickstein, as of late last year, was said to be exploring a number of strategic options .

Nonetheless, a kind of survivor guilt was apparent in some – though certainly not all – former Dickstein partners we’ve interviewed. “This should not have happened to Dickstein,” said a litigator who left the firm in 2014 and viewed Dickstein’s turnover predicament as the result of market shifts and a series of bad breaks (e.g. Dennis Hastert ).

Jim Turken, the former managing partner of Dickstein’s L.A. office and executive committee member who joined Eisner Jaffe this week,recently praised Dickstein’s leadership but declined to go into specifics about the firm’s current state of affairs.

Other former partners expressed concern for the firm and its lawyers. One of the most recent partners to leave ended our conversation with an appeal: “Please be kind to Dickstein.”

Of course, parting is not always such sweet sorrow. The perception of management plays a huge role in how ex-employees view their former firms. Those who blamed strategic blunders for Dickstein’s foundering did not look back with nostalgia. “The Dickstein we knew and loved is gone” is how one former partner put it.

Similarly, former partners at the now-defunct Bingham McCutchen blamed the firm’s failure on not properly integrating lateral hires . And while Steven Davis will not be re-tried by prosecutors, there’s certainly no love lost between ex-Dewey partners and the former firm’s top brass. Though “situations where there (could be) illegality are obviously different,” says Adler.

“When firms collapse and its departing lawyers reflect, their emotions publicly reference their experience with the entity itself,” says Jason Yuen of lateral search firm Yuen Partners. “But ultimately, what they are really experiencing emotionally is how the firm’s leadership guided —or misguided — the firm and how leadership treated its lawyers.”

But at the end of the day, while personal relationships are involved, any lateral move is a business decision. “The minute a partner lands in a new place, you can forget about guilt,” says Parker. “They might feel badly about leaving friends, but not the business.”

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