Roscoe C. Howard Jr., the former U.S. attorney in Washington, realized not long ago that interviewing for law firm partnerships was taking a toll. The breakfasts at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, the lunches at Ten Penh and the Caucus Room, and the dinners at the Palm and the Capital Grille were adding up — on his waistline.
“All you got to do is look at my suits,” said Howard, who this month joined the year-old D.C. office of California’s Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP after meeting with more than a dozen other law firms . “They used to fit better.”
After three years of belt-tightening, law firms are hotly competing again for lawyers who can defend executives charged with fraud or understand engineering and other highly technical fields.
Securities law, once considered dull by lawyers in more glamorous practices, now has high status in an era of corporate scandals. And, with the boom in technology, firms are also looking for lawyers who understand both the intricacies of intellectual property law and complicated technologies like the biochemistry involved in making drugs — and who can then simplify it for a jury.
From K Street to Capitol Hill, those lawyers are busily negotiating for more money, fancier titles and corner offices with picturesque views, according to local lawyers and the headhunters paid to lure top legal talent.
“Things are loosening up,” said longtime D.C. legal recruiter Jacquelyn Finn of Finn and Associates.
Lavish wining and dining of the most sought-after recruits is a tradition at law firms, but it is a marked change for lawyers who toiled in government agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, where they are generally barred from accepting meals worth more than $20.
An SEC lawyer said he and his colleagues, whose government experience suddenly makes them highly desirable, are getting calls from law firms almost daily. While SEC lawyers in the past two years have gotten substantial pay boosts — more than 10 percent in some cases — private law firms easily can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more a year.
Partners in law firms generally receive a share of the profits each year after expenses such as rent and employee salaries. At the city’s biggest firms, pay ranges between $500,000 and $1.6 million a year, according to a survey last year by Legal Times — with compensation on the higher end for firms based in New York or Los Angeles.