Whether they worked at Heller or Thelen–or were pushed out at other firms–some partners didn’t have a choice about finding a new job. The American Lawyer reports on a new phenomenon.

Whether they worked at Heller or Thelen--or were pushed out at other firms--some partners didn't have a choice about finding a new job. The American Lawyer reports on a new phenomenon.

Anne Pitter practiced with the same group of corporate attorneys for 15 years. They stayed together even as the name on the door changed: Baer Marks & Upham merged into Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner, and Brown Raysman merged into Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner. But when Thelen fell apart last fall, Pitter was on her own.

In the month after Thelen’s dissolution vote in late October, Pitter met with close to a dozen firms, about half comparable in size to 500-lawyer Thelen. With large firms struggling to drum up enough work to keep their own lawyers busy, Pitter says, most weren’t willing to hire a partner like her who primarily provided service to other partners’ clients. Recruiters told her big firms weren’t interested in anyone with less than $1 million in portable business. When she couldn’t promise those kinds of numbers, some headhunters simply stopped returning her phone calls.

“It was apparent that a bigger firm–which is the environment I was used to practicing in–was not going to be as interested in me as I was in them,” Pitter says.

In a year when some law firms have been paring their ranks and others have dissolved completely, Pitter was part of the glut of talented lawyers looking for a new work home. In May, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal let six partners go as part of larger lawyer and staff cuts. In October, Jenner & Block management told The National Law Journal that the firm had recently cut ten partners. Add to those numbers the partners pushed out less publicly at other firms and the 200-plus equity partners from dissolving firms like Heller Ehrman and Thelen, and it’s clear that not everybody who ended up on the lateral market this year intended to be there. Call them accidental laterals.

With so many lawyers job-hunting–and not by choice–the tenor of their experience was markedly different than that of the typical lateral itching to find a new home. Accidental laterals often crammed searches that typically take months into just weeks. And since it was public knowledge that Heller and Thelen lawyers were looking for a new home, more firms competed for the attention of partners with portable business than would be expected in normal circumstances. To the end, many believed they wouldn’t have to move at all. “We were the guys who stayed on and hoped that we would be able to pull it through,” says former Thelen corporate partner Stanley Bloch, who ultimately moved to Seyfarth Shaw in November.

What can firms and tomorrow’s accidental laterals learn from this past year? On the recruiting side, the advice boils down to a maddening bromide: Move quickly-but not too quickly! Unwieldy recruitment processes have to be expedited to accommodate client and new partner needs, say former Heller and Thelen partners who have just gone through the process. “For the firms that see an opportunity and want to capitalize on it, it’s necessary to put aside all the rules and just be there,” says former Heller IP cochair M. Patricia Thayer, who moved to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in October.

Yet recruiters and some partners urge firms not to skip “cultural” and practice filtering that occurs during standard lateral courtships. Shotgun lateral acquisitions can lead to failures. “You will find a lot of ex-Brobeckians at their second and third firms now,” says Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Dan Hatch.

For partners who need to move, the primary lesson is to be clear-eyed about what they can bring with them. In a down economy, big-firm partners who don’t have big packets of portable business will need to look at midsize and boutique firms. After a month of searching, former Thelen partner Pitter joined 30-lawyer Hartman & Craven in New York. “For a small firm it has very diverse practice groups. . . . It can offer the tax, the trust and estates, the corporate, the real estate, and the litigation,” she says. There is life outside The Am Law 100.

Undoubtedly, in 2009 more lawyers will end up on the market who had no intention of being there, starting with the 75 Thacher Proffitt & Wood attorneys who didn’t get the life preserver from Sonnenschein. “Let’s be very clear, we are now in a time where the shake-out hasn’t happened yet,” says San Diego-based recruiter Michael Patrick. Echoes Pitter: “It’s going to get harder before it’s going to get easier.”

FOR FIRMS WILLING TO MOVE QUICKLY, many accidental laterals-especially those from dissolving firms-have inherently attractive qualities. For one, there’s no need to play amateur psychotherapist: The motives for moving are clear and compelling. “These are unique opportunities,” says Thomas Fitzgerald, managing partner of Winston & Strawn, a firm that picked up eight partners from Heller and 13 from Thelen. “[These moves] obviously involve very good lawyers who had no interest in looking,” he adds. Says Jones Day partner Joe Sims: “We got some people who we might not have gotten to talk to us but for the fact that they didn’t have a choice. They had to talk to somebody.” Jones Day picked up 20 Heller partners across the firm’s New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco offices.

To do so, the firm bent the rules a little: In a couple of cases, since managing partner Stephen Brogan was out of the country at the time, Jones Day made an exception to its long-standing practice of having candidates meet Brogan so that he could make the final decision on their hire.

Jones Day wasn’t the only firm that made accommodations to bring new partners aboard. At Orrick, laterals typically go through a vetting process that culminates in what partners call the “fishbowl,” where a recruit spends time on either coast meeting with upward of 100 partners over a couple of days [see The Art of Retaining Laterals, February 2008]. Although former Heller chairs Robert Rosenfeld and Barry Levin asked to go through the fishbowl process because they thought it would be a good way to get to know Orrick, most of the 30 Heller partners whom Orrick hired did not.

San Francisco partner Mark Levie helped coordinate the work of 40-plus partners who had a hand in the recruitment process, including a handful of former Heller partners whom Orrick had previously recruited. Although bicoastal interviews were an impossibility, Orrick partners still drafted memos identifying the potential laterals’ strategic fit and projected financial performance at Orrick. “We had a selectively strong appetite,” Levie says. “Still, we couldn’t accommodate everything [the former Heller partners] wanted us to do.” Levie notes that Orrick was cautious about bringing on Heller associates:It hired 27 former Heller associates, slightly fewer than the number of partners it took on.

The opportunity for a mass hire is a warning signal to many firms. These accidental laterals, after all, provide vivid evidence that bad things can happen even to good firms. “There’s no more stark reminder of the dangers of growth than talking to these people and watching them face what they have faced,” says Lorie Almon, co-managing partner of Seyfarth Shaw’s New York office. In the weeks after the Thelen partnership voted in late October to dissolve, Seyfarth partners met with about 35 Thelen lawyers. Seyfarth was an attractive refuge: financially conservative and free of long-term debt. That prudence led Seyfarth to make offers to about half the partners interviewed, says Almon. Eventually 15 Thelen attorneys joined Seyfarth, including eight who came as partners.

Firms that had previously identified needs in a specific practice or location were willing to take on entire groups of lateral hires. At a partner retreat last spring, Howrey partners looked to expected growth in the energy and infrastructure sectors and targeted construction litigation as an area for lateral hiring. When Thelen’s high-profile construction litigation group came onto the market, Howrey acted fast. “We saw, we sought, and everything came together in about 45 days,” says James Martin, Howrey’s chief recruiting officer.

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