Legal Law

The Upswing In Biglaw Accomplice Departures

There’s lots of upheaval in the legal industry in 2020. Well, to be fair, there’s lots of upheaval in the world in 2020, so this is just par for the course. But even as we get information that, as an industry, Biglaw seems to be weathering the troubled times just fine, some firms are seeing lateral partners leave at an abnormal rate.

As reported by Patrick Smith at Law.com, legal consulting firm Decipher did an analysis of lateral partner defection from January 1 to August 31 of this year. Included in the data are partner exits at Am Law 200 firms and some midsize firms; they only counted partner-to-partner laterals, and if they moved from government or in-house roles into partnership positions, they were excluded. With those technicalities out of the way, let’s see which firms had the most departures.

The top three in partner defection are Kirkland & Ellis (54), Boies Schiller (50), and Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith (31).

K&E usually has a high turnover rate — with over 1,000 partners, that’s bound to happen. But their net loss is higher than expected, as they only took on 18 new lateral partners after losing 54.

“I was surprised to see Kirkland had lost that number of people,” Sabina Lippman of legal recruiting firm Lippman Jungers Bala said. “But they can afford to do that. They can go after people more aggressively than anyone else. They have a lot to play with, and they can take risks that many others can’t.”

Boies, well, if you’ve been paying attention to legal news over the past year, it’s no surprise to see them on the list. Overall headcount has been declining at the firm, as the firm charts a new course, one that includes adding new bankruptcy partners.

Other firms that get mentioned as having notable departure numbers are Greenberg Traurig, Winston & Strawn, Holland & Knight, Akerman, and Polsinelli. While most of the firms didn’t comment on the Law.com story, Holland & Knight was open about how the pandemic is impacting their partnership:

“The pandemic has caused a number of partners to alter their career plans,” Holland & Knight managing partner Steven Sonberg said in a statement.

“These involve various circumstances including the opening of boutique practices or moving to in-house legal positions or nonprofits. We have also had partners retire, relocate to cities where the firm does not maintain offices, and move to other law firms,” he said. “The firm continues to perform well, and we are poised to have another successful year. As a result, we expect a significant number of lateral partners will join the firm over the next several months.”

And Polsinelli also looks to the pandemic as the explanation for their headcount dip:

“We were slow from a hiring perspective, intentionally, during the pandemic, for a lot of reasons,” Chase Simmons, CEO and chairman of Polsinelli, said in an interview. “Clients were not as interested in meeting new attorneys, it was hard to move around and meet people and we were more focused on transitioning our existing attorneys. (The departure count) doesn’t shock me, as we are not managing to a number, but rather to what the client needs.”

Which makes sense, not every firm can actively try to expand during the COVID-19 turbulence. Of course it remains to be seen if these lateral trends will continue once the threat of COVID-19 has receded.

Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, and host of The Jabot podcast. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).

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