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White & Case Restarts Growth Plan as Firms Capitalize on Hiring

June 18, 2020, 10:02 AM

White & Case is aggressively expanding key practice areas while much of the legal industry struggles with the economic fallout of the coronavirus.

The international giant recently signed Holland & Knight partner Germaine Gurr to its global mergers and acquisitions practice in New York. The former deputy general counsel of Schneider Electric who specializes in M&A and private equity transactions joined the firm on the heels of other notable lateral hires announced in recent days.

The pandemic and subsequent recession has forced law firms to retrench and consider their own survival, considerably slowing the lateral market. For some firms, like White & Case, the current situation has presented an opportunity to invest in the future.

“We’re jumping back into growth now just a couple of months later with both feet,” said John Reiss, head of White & Case’s M&A practice.

Navigating a Crisis

White & Case entered 2020 in the final year of a five-year growth strategy. The plan sought to grow to 500 lawyers in New York and London, and called for targeted growth in its M&A, private equity, capital markets and disputes resolutions practices.

But as the coronavirus hit, the firm shifted gears to address the health and safety of its employees and review where things were headed.

“We took a hiatus on our growth strategy in order to carefully evaluate the impact of these turbulent times on the strength of our business,” Reiss said. “We also took a step back to evaluate the business of the candidates we were pursuing.”

The firm during the crisis has leaned on its diversified practices like bankruptcy, which is representing Hertz Global Holdings, Inc. in its Chapter 11 restructuring, and recovering M&A markets in Europe and Asia. Hiring is back in the spotlight as the nation gradually reopens business and the devastated economy begins to show life.

“We’re navigating this situation well which puts us in a position of strength to hire laterals,” Reiss said.

Gurr’s addition is the latest in a flurry of recent hires. Tara Lee, co-chair of the national trial practice at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, joined White & Case’s commercial litigation practice in Washington. A four-lawyer team from Winston & Strawn—including partners Joel Rubinstein, Jonathan Rochwarger, and Elliott Smith—joined its capital markets practice in New York.

The hiring focus reflects gradual growth, Reiss said, with “lawyers who have businesses now that are really continuing to generate substantial work notwithstanding what’s going on in the world.”

Rubinstein and his team from Winston focus on special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC transactions, which have been a bright spot in the M&A and capital markets space during the crisis. Litigation is picking up and Gurr’s private equity and corporate client base remain active, Reiss said.

The firm plans on continuing with its growth plans.

“We will be moving forward aggressively with our growth strategy, taking advantage of the opportunities that our global reach and breadth and depth of resources can provide to potential lateral partners,” Reiss said.

Stalling Laterals

As economic impact of coronavirus started becoming clear, some law firms turned to cash-saving measures like salary cuts, furloughs and layoffs and moved lateral hiring to the back burner.

In April and May, Am Law 200 firms made 140 and 95 partner hires, respectively, according to Bloomberg Law data. Am Law 200 firms made 291 and 226 hires in April and May of 2019.

White & Case isn’t the only firm seizing opportunity.

“I do see many higher performing firms multitasking and, on a parallel track, managing demand fluctuations and controlling expenses accordingly, but at the same time also investing for the future,” said Kent Zimmermann, a law firm management consultant for the Zeughauser Group.

A similar picture emerged after the 2008 financial crisis, which saw higher performing law firms steady their ship on the home-front, but also use it as an opportunity to improve their market positions, he noted.

But some firms are starting to feel that they have the downturn under control, and are using this time to invest through hires, Zimmermann said, noting an uptick in practice leaders, like Lee, moving to other firms.

“Some astute firms are learning from lessons of prior downturns, knowing that sometimes there’s windows of opportunity in a downturn to take strong teams out of firms with uncertain futures and they’re acting on those opportunities now,” Zimmermann said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Meghan Tribe in New York at mtribe@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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