It would hardly be an overstatement to say that the 2008 debacle of Wall Street hit the world of BigLaw like a tsunami. In October of that year, Thelen’s management — which was already on its last legs after its ill-fated acquisition of Brown Raysman only one year earlier — began parcelling out entire sections of their firm. At the same time Heller Ehrman, whose partners had voted to dissolve on September 26, was closing its cafeterias and starting to remove coffee machines from its numerous offices nationwide. Like falling dominoes, one firm after another began throwing as much baggage overboard as possible in seeming desperation. By the end of the month, Katten had laid off 21 attorneys, Sonnenschein 24 and Clifford Chance 20. Even firm captains were jumping ship. Thacher Proffitt’s Vice Chairman lateralled to Greenberg Traurig and Thelen’s Chairman was reported to be in talks to join Howrey. Firms across the board were scaling back and in some cases eliminating their summer programs outright, forcing law students everywhere to consider debt forgiveness programs and alternative careers even before graduation.
As the US Army engages in introspection with respect to its internal oversight in the wake of the Fort Hood massacre and the SEC does the same after the Madoff disaster, the government is clearly announcing that it will require no less of private sector supervisors than it will of itself. In a recent example, the SEC is compelling the former general counsel and CEO of San Francisco investment bank Merriman Curhan Ford to pay for its failure to properly supervise David “Scott” Cacchione, who pleaded guilty to fraud in March for emailing customer accounts to William “Boots” Del Biaggio III in connection with a scheme to scam banks out of $50 million worth of loans: “When you find major frauds at a broker dealer like this, you’re going to naturally look at ‘Where is the supervision?'” said Michael Dicke, the enforcement director of the San Francisco office.
We may be a millenium from the day that BigLaw is healthy enough to enable its attorneys to train sufficiently for a spot in the real Tour de France. But we certainly took a spin in the right direction when three members of Hogan & Hartson, namely Warren Gorrell, 55 (Hogan’s chairman), Stephen Immelt, 57 (partner in Hogan’s Baltimore office) and Dennis Tracey, 53 (managing partner of Hogan’s U.S. offices) hammered unofficially but with ample BigLaw fanfare through one particularly beautiful stage of the celebrated bike race, culminating atop a pristine peak amidst the Alps.
After almost a decade of continuous ascent in the categories of revenue, profits, salaries and bonuses since the last deep doldrums we experienced following the collapse of the dot-com bubble, BigLaw’s current plunge from the stratosphere feels to most of our players to be more perilous than ever. The prevailing sense of fear was exemplified this week by the venerable Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in announcing that as part of its keep-the-boat-afloat strategy, it is offering its incoming associate class a $75,000 payout to any rookie who elects not to jump on board, eclipsing the significance of Skadden’s historic offer earlier this year to pay associates at a rate of 33 percent of base to take a premature sabbatical.
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).