The Major Global Law Firm Investigations of 2021

law firm layoffs

When it comes to major stories involving law firms in 2021 Law.com International looked at 13 of their major probes, involving firms ranging from the conduct of Cyde & Co’s senior partner to law firm culture and the way in which sexual harassment complaints have been handled.

2021 has been a challenging year for everyone, law firms included, but for many it has also been a boom year. The reflection on how major law firms have behaved is reflective also of a changing legal environment with higher levels of commitment and cultural change required from the law firms that continue to make their moves in the legal marketplace.

Here’s a rundown of some of our probes this year which got law firms rethinking their policies.


1. Clyde & Co’s Senior Partner Probe

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In the early months of 2021, Clyde & Co suddenly announced that its senior partner Peter Hirst would be standing down from the role after little more than a year in charge. The Law.com story saw that the departure had been subject to an internal probe into his conduct which included allegations of bullying after an open letter about his behaviour was sent to the partnership by a U.K. partner in late 2020. The independent investigation into Hirst revealed that complaints made against him were not upheld, while Hirst said that his decision to step down from the role was prompted by soul-searching during the COVID-19 lockdowns.


2. White & Case Culture Investigation

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White & Case saw itself as a focus of a large investigation notwithstanding its much touted ‘Plan 2020’ financial growth strategy in 2020, as the firm has been plagued by accusations of poor integration and a siloed partnership, with both current and former partners at the firm stressing the firm’s need to look beyond financial success and focus more on cultural issues. In a Law.com investigation published in The American Lawyer earlier this year. The issues need to be addressed, particularly in London to both stem the numbers leaving and to retain legal talent.,


3. Racial Tokenism in the Legal Industry

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A major piece by the website looked at the attempts by law firms to increase racial diversity as a large number of A raft of Black and minority lawyers across the U.K. have said that their names and images were used on client pitches and promotional materials they had nothing to do with just so firms could appear more diverse than they were. The practice left many minority lawyers feeling exploited by their superiors in order to fulfil client diversity wishes. ”Black lawyers were all over the pitching presentation but not on the actual work,” one lawyer said.

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4. Major Firm Departures

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The site looked at major lateral moves and the repercussions for the former firms, in particular focused on departures bythree top partners at Quinn Emanuel & Urquhart leaving to join Willkie Farr & Gallagher in London, whose exits could see as much as a quarter of the firm’s London revenue walk away with them, while an arbitration team exited Shearman & Sterling to launch its own boutique in a move that would reportedly dent Shearman’s revenues by more than $30 million. Elsewhere, the exit of Slaughter and May’s exalted corporate prodigy Murray Cox to Weil Gotshal & Manges marked yet another example of market-leading junior partners at U.K. firms being lured to U.S. rivals and was a significant hit to Slaughters’ future private equity fortunes, according to Law.com International reporting.


5. Allens Sexual Harassment Mishandling

Fiona Thatcher

Ongoing issues relating to law firm sexual harassment continue to plague the legal profession and Law.com looked at firms that found themselves in trouble over the way they handled such complaints. Among those that found themselves in the lens were Linklaters’ Australian alliance firm Allens which promoted a male lawyer after disciplining him for sexually harassing a female colleague. Further investigation by Law.com International’s reporting team in London and Australia showed that the issue remains a major proble. industry.


6. Pay For Junior Lawyers

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Associate pay and the bonuses they receive has been a major point of interest for lawyers in the US, UK and elsewhere as the salaries continue to climb north. But there have also been issues about just how those pay rises should be distributed, including some concerns about junior lawyers’ falling behind on the biglaw pay scale. Find out which regions are seeing the most dramatic shifts in junior lawyer pay in this in-depth round-up by Law.com International correspondents across the globe.


7. The Associate Talent Drain

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Covid-19 lockdowns and increased pressure, as well as the increased compensation paid by biglaw firms has seen many associates decamping for other law firms – or out of law altogether. For many law firms, the year was characterised by an exodus of junior talent brought on by increasing workloads and the legacy of the COVID-19 lockdowns, leading many associates to reassess their career paths. In a long-running series of investigations, Law.com spoke to junior lawyers in the U.K. about their experiences throughout the year and their motivations to leave the legal industry, with several citing burnout, anxiety and stress as the main drivers behind their departures.


8. The Most Diverse law firms in the UK

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Diversity has been a hot button issue for the legal industry for some time and Law.com looked closely at some of the law firms in the UK that have made the most significant moves towards greater diversity within their ranks, including both racial and gender diversity. One article looked at which U.K. law firms have the most female equity partners – a key indicator of a firm’s dedication to retaining and promoting women within their ranks – while another looked at which U.K. firms have the most Black lawyers one year on from the death of George Floyd. Two more articles looked at which firm has the most LGBTQ+ lawyers, and which have the highest proportion of state-educated lawyers. The law firm diversity issue continues to build momentum and remain a key issue for lawyers – both long-established and incoming.


9. The Firms That Took The Big Deals

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Big deals for biglaw continued to grow notwithstanding the Covid-19 pandemic and Law.com looked at some of the biggest deals that were done and who handled them in their 2021 rundown. In a May article, an analysis of Preqin and Mergermarket data revealed the law firms that took on the best mandates from the largest buyout firms on European deals in recent years, while Bloomberg and Dealogic data from July showed which law firms had been winning IPO mandates from major investment banks in the first half of 2021. Covid-19 may have altered the way law was practised, but it hardly slowed the big deals that continued to exercise the minds of lawyers globally.


10.The Australian Struggle for Global Law Firms

Sydney, Australia

Australian law firms saw a fair degree of difficulty and controversy during 2021, particularly for some of the global law firms operating Down Under.  Norton Rose Fulbright’s challenges in Australia in the decade since a 2010 merger between the international firm and local player Deacons was the subject of an investigation by Law.com International’s Australia correspondent Christopher Niesche in September, with former partners telling Niesche that structural problems, internal disputes and bad management have dogged the firm. In another article, Niesche examined why listed law firm DWF’s ultimately-unsuccessful attempts to break into the Australian market, with the firm shuttering three offices in the country earlier this year.


11. A U.K. Firm Fell Out With Its Spanish Office

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Ownership of a law firm brand is not typically the sort of thing that would occupy the attention of firms, however in this case a major dispute arose in respect of U.K. law firm Kennedys became entangled in a bitter argument with its Spanish office and who owned the Kennedys brand in Spain. The firm’s U.K. arm invoking a clause in the partnership deed to dissolve the relationship. The two sides eventually reached a détente in early 2021, but what caused the rift between them in the first place? The dispute unveiled some dramatic issues involving the firm.


12. The Best And Worst Law Firms For Energy Usage

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This was a ‘first’ for Law.com, which looked at the carbon and energy reports of the U.K.’s top 50 law firms and compared emissions from their office electricity use. With environmental, social and corporate governance issues now much more on the radar for law firms and with many firms setting up their own ESG policies, the findings were interesting.


13. Top Law Firms Fail to Hit Diversity Targets

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The diversity issue, as noted, is a key one for law firms and it is an area where many firms have been slow to move themselves to achieve appropriate diversity within their ranks. An investigation by Law.com’s Simon Lock found that swathes of law firms – including some of the biggest hitters in the market – have missed at least one major milestone for diversity. The following discussion around law firm targets was one that created some interesting issues and brought out the issue of just what firms should be doing in terms of how high the bar should be set for diversity.

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