In the midst of these current turbulent market waters, a total of 2509 partners at AmLaw 100 and 200 firms managed to successfully jump ship in 2008. The biggest winners were K&L Gates (185 partner acquisitions), Reed Smith (74), DLA Piper (58), Jones Day (57) and Alston & Bird (53), while the biggest losers were Akin Gump (59 partner defections), Heller Ehrman (47 pre-dissolution), Thelen (46 pre-dissolution), Mayer Brown (45), and, K&L Gates (again) (40).
The two questions logically raised by these statistics are these: Why are today’s BigLaw partners now jumping in record numbers, and how can one explain the fact that the biggest lateral partner winner in 2008 simultaneously ranked among the top five lateral losers? (We note for the record here that Reed Smith, DLA Piper and Alston & Bird ranked among the top ten lateral partner losers in 2008 as well with 38, 37 and 22 defections respectively.)
Simply put, partners today are jumping like grasshoppers primarily for two reasons: first, more BigLaw firms feel seriously unstable to partners than ever before, which means that finding a more stable ship is no longer a matter of preference but rather one of survival; and second, lateral partner movement is becoming increasingly destigmatized to the point that partners who make a good lateral move or two during the course of their careers are generally as admired within and without the legal community as any other business person is and should be for trading up wisely.
As their impressive numbers of lateral partner acquisitions as well as defections indicate, K&L Gates, Reed Smith, DLA Piper and Alston & Bird are clearly firms that have adjusted to the reality of lateral partner movement being as professionally palatable as Manny Ramirez hopping to the other coast to play for Joe Torre. This by no means however implies that career exploration at the BigLaw partner level is greeted with sympathy and understanding at all of our otherwise finest firms. Quite the contrary is true, in fact. Any partner-level legal recruiter worth his or her salt met many BigLaw partners during the course of 2008’s record slashing year in corners of greasy spoon diners at the potential defectors’ requests to allay fears of being seen talking to one of us. And while confidentiality and discretion remain essential components of good work in the field of attorney career consulting at all times and at all levels, a reasonable trepidation of being excommunicated from any firm’s inner circles merely for having committed the sin of examining career alternatives with a respected BigLaw market expert is as good a reason to call Hanover Legal as any we can suggest.
In sum, every major player in the market of BigUSLaw recognizes that in this cataclysmic economic environment great opportunities abound for acquiring talent and increasing revenue, and as long as this shakedown continues, partners will continue to explore and firms will continue to acquire with increasing temerity. And as in any other downturn, those who trade well while the storm rages will profit handsomely once the winds subside, and those who don’t will have to settle for the same old dysfunctionality in the same old outfit, just hoping that when the next good hurricane shakes the trees, they’ll be ready, willing and able to look around and leap if the right opportunity presents itself.