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How the SCOTUS Firm Conservatives Love Got Acquired by Kirkland (in Two Weeks!)

Sept. 12, 2016, 9:48 PM

The big news that everyone in the legal market is buzzing about today is Kirkland & Ellis’s mass hire of 17 lawyers from the Bancroft law firm, a prominent Washington, D.C. boutique specializing in arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The firm, founded by Viet D. Dinh, staffs the former U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, 50, who is currently representing Republicans in two political cases before the Supreme Court over how lawmakers draw district lines in Virginia and North Carolina.

Despite a couple of unspecified conflicts that needed some ironing out, the whole thing was put together over the course of about two weeks during a series of phone calls between Clement, Dinh, Bancroft partner Chris Bartolomucci and Kirkland litigator Mark Filip.

“Mark’s been a friend of mine since law school,” said Clement, noting that when Filip first called him at his Alexandria home, he “assumed it was to make a bet on the Packers, Bears game.” [Clement hails from Wisconsin, while Filip is a Chicagoan.]

“It started out as a conversation that may or may not have gone anywhere, but the longer we talked about it, the more it made sense for us and Bancroft.”

Bancroft, founded in 2003, is known for its conservative roots and has taken on controversial cases, including advocating for the Defense Against Marriage Act.

Clement joined Bancroft in 2011 after his prior firm King & Spalding cut ties with him for representing clients that advocated for DOMA, which forbade the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Clement moved to Bancroft so that he could continue his role advocating for the law, which eventually was ruled unconstitutional in 2013.

Dinh was the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Legal Policy under George W. Bush, from 2001 to 2003. He said that the deal would not have made sense with any other big law firm.

It should be noted that Kirkland has a history of staffing conservative-thinking lawyers: Its alumni include Kenneth Starr, who was U.S. Solicitor General for George H.W. Bush and this year resigned from Baylor University following an investigation into the mishandling of sexual assaults on campus.

A Kirkland spokesperson issued a statement in response to questions about Clement and Bancroft’s history advising on conservative cases. “Paul Clement has argued 80 cases in the Supreme Court on a wide variety of issues,” the statement said. “He is broadly respected across the political spectrum as one of the leading appellate lawyers in America. We expect he will maintain that respected position.”

In an email, Dinh said: “We did not get any resistance from Kirkland. They know who we are and the work we do.”

Kirkland & Ellis, with more than 1,600 lawyers, is known for paying its newly-hired lawyers handsomely. In 2009, the firm poached two top M&A partners from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and in 2013, it hired Robert Khuzami, the former SEC Enforcement Director for what the New York Times reported to be $5 million in annual compensation.

While both Clement and Dinh declined to talk about any compensation they or their colleagues received as part of the deal, Dinh allowed: “Suffice it to say, everybody wins here. It wouldn’t make sense for either Bancroft or Kirkland, unless it was a mutually beneficial combination.”

In the deal, the Bancroft lawyers will join Kirkland as lateral hires. They’ll shutter the old Bancroft law firm, keeping its website up just for client retention and recruitment purposes, said Clement.

Major law firms frequently hire outside lawyers to bolster their ranks, but this move is exceptional, among the top few of the year, according to Jon Lindsey, the name partner of recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.

“The fact that I got six different alerts from six different sources about this... it’s like Kevin Durant going to the Warriors,” said Lindsey.

One mutual client shared by both the firms is General Motors.

In separate interviews with Big Law Business, Clement and Dinh spoke in greater detail about the transition from Bancroft PLLC to Kirkland & Ellis, covering their state of minds throughout the extraordinary weeks-long proposition. We’ve posted the most relevant comments below, condensed in a single, abbreviated transcript.

Big Law Business: So wow. Big move today. How did all of this happen?

Clement: It happened kind of organically. Mark Filip, who is on the management committee at Kirkland, is someone who I’ve known since law school. As we talked it through, it seemed to make a lot of sense in terms of marrying up Kirkland’s litigation practice and our appellate specialty. It seemed like it was a great fit. Kirkland is a place where I started my legal career. I know it very well and think very highly of it.

Big Law Business: So Mark reached out to you?

Clement: He did reach out to me. To be candid we weren’t really necessarily looking to move. We were very happy with the practice we had and how things were going.

He called a couple weeks ago. I don’t know the exact timeline. It was a phone call. Since Mark and I have known each other for 25 years, I assumed it was to make a bet on the Packers, Bears game or something. I assumed it was about something completely unrelated to this. I think I was just at home. It was a regular day. When he first made the call I thought it was nice of him to call and I was willing to explore possibilities, but I thought practicalities might get in the way.

It started out as a conversation that may or may not have gone anywhere, but the longer we talked about it, the more it made sense for us and Bancroft. We weren’t looking to make a move or wind up Bancroft. We weren’t willing to do something if it didn’t make sense for everyone over here.

Big Law Business: Is this a merger?

Clement: It’s not a merger, technically, for reasons I won’t bore you with. It’s a big lateral move by a big practice group. It’s the structure I think that makes the most sense to the Bancroft perspective.

[Clement declined to comment on why the deal was structured as a mass lateral hire.]

Big Law Business: So what’s going to happen to the old Bancroft?

Clement: I think we’re going to wind it down. This will take a little while for us to wind it down, so we’ll keep our website up and running in case someone is looking for us.

Big Law Business: Two weeks is a pretty tight time span to close a deal like this.

Clement: Well, I’ve been spending more time on the phone with Mark the past couple weeks than on a typical couple week period. There were definitely back and forth and various calls on this. This came together pretty quickly because I think once the idea was floated and the various practical aspects, in terms of conflicts and the like, were sorted out, it came together pretty quickly.

Big Law Business: What were the conflicts issues?

Clement: I don’t want to go into specifics.

Big Law Business: Viet, were you onboard with everything? How do you feel about the Bancroft brand disappearing?

Dinh: We are very decisive when the decision is easy. I guess in terms of legacy of Bancroft, this shows the far sightedness of us not putting our name on the door. Bancroft is a lot more anglo than Dinh, Clement and Bartolomucci.

I don’t think this would have happened with any other firm and I don’t think it could have happened with anybody but Mark Filip. We are happy with where we are and happy with the success of Bancroft, but we have known Mark — Paul, Chris (Bartolomucci) and I — since law school. And frankly, we trust Mark as much as we trust each other. It was a very easy conversation in terms of the transactional points.

[Editor’s Note: The Firm’s name reflects its original location, a townhouse on Bancroft Place NW in Washington, D.C.]

Big Law Business: Can you share anything more about the transactional points? How much revenue are you bringing to Kirkland? What are they paying your the team?

Dinh: We tend not to focus so much on the financial aspect of things. After all, I am still a recovering academic. Suffice it to say, everybody wins here. It wouldn’t make sense for either Bancroft or Kirkland unless it was a mutually beneficial combination. All of our people are going to join Kirkland & Ellis, and that was an animating spirit of the conversation. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but rather put more gas in it so they can run faster and further.

Big Law Business: Paul, will you take on a leadership role at the new firm?

Clement: They don’t really have a lot of sub-structure there. I will go in there as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis. Then again, all I am at Bancroft is a partner at Bancroft.

Have a good story? Write to us at BigLawBusiness@bna.com.

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