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Two Big Law Firms Open in Chicago, Defying Industry’s Austerity

Dec. 1, 2020, 9:23 PM

Two Big Law firms announced new offices in Chicago on Tuesday, a sign that large firms may be feeling more confident after earlier, dire projections driven by the pandemic led to a prolonged season of austerity.

Venable, an AmLaw 100 firm with more than 730 lawyers, launched in the Windy City by hiring a 12-lawyer construction practice from Schiff Hardin, which includes three partners and three associates in Chicago.

Detroit-founded Dickinson Wright, a fast-growing firm with more than 475 lawyers, announced a new Chicago outpost by completing a merger with 12-lawyer Stahl Cowen. Real estate lawyer Jeff Stahl opened the boutique firm opened nearly 20 years ago.

Big Law firms have battened down the hatches this year, trimming staff and lawyer salaries along with other expenses while making minimal investments. Those defensive measures now have many firms on solid ground after fears that the coronavirus pandemic would devastate Big Law finances proved largely overblown, according to a report on Tuesday by Citi Private Bank and Hildebrandt Consulting.

Firms feared double-digit declines in demand and revenue at the outset of the pandemic, the report said. But revenue grew 5% through nine months in 2020, and demand was down only 0.7%. Expenses, meanwhile, dropped 2.1% compared to the year-ago period, creating a possibility of higher profits for many firms.

Not Just Surviving

Venable’s group hire adds a construction practice that is well-regarded for representing owners and government entities in large infrastructure projects. The group is based in New York, Chicago, and Washington, and includes seven partners: Kenneth Roberts, Heidi Hennig Rowe, Mark Friedlander, James Frankel, Brian Lustbader, Gary Rubin, and Amanda Schermer MacVey.

Roberts, a head of the group, who had been at Schiff for 30 years and served in leadership positions, said Venable’s decision to invest during a pandemic “spoke volumes” about the firm’s confidence in the future.

“Nothing could speak louder than for somebody to make a decision of that magnitude during the heart of the pandemic,” said Roberts. “It was very clear that [Venable chair Stu Ingis] and the firm’s leadership weren’t just looking to survive the pandemic, they were looking to position themselves for success.”

Roberts also expects Congress to pass an infrastructure bill under a Biden administration, prompting more economic activity and new opportunities for firms that advise builders.

At Dickinson Wright,the pandemic dampened what has been a recent history of growth. The firm opened multiple offices and saw revenue nearly double from 2012 to 2019, according to data from AmLaw. Dickinson Wright still managed to hire more than 20 lawyers since January, which chair Michael Hammer described as a do.

“We’re hungry for growth,” he said.

The pandemic had initially delayed the merger with Stahl Cowen, which will bring on board lawyers in real estate, corporate, and litigation practices. Those will serve as a base to grow other groups such as intellectual property, Hammer said.

“It gives confidence to folks that we are proceeding ahead with our plan and we’re not just stuck in neutral for some period of time,” he said. “There was no real business reason not to do it because of the pandemic. We assessed the situation. We saw what it brought. And we got through that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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