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The Ever-Contracting Landscape of BigLaw

Chadbourne’s February 2017 melting into Norton Rose Fulbright continues the trend of AmLaw 100 firms dissolving or being acquired or absorbed by larger, stronger players at the rate of one every year or so since 1999, starting that year with Brobeck and since followed by other now fallen but once-titans Coudert Brothers, Rogers & Wells, Rosenman & Colin, Kronish Lieb, Brown Raysman, Thelen, Thacher Profitt, Howrey, McKee Nelson, Dreier, Heller Ehrman, Wolf Block, Dickstein Shapiro, Dewey & LeBoeuf and Bingham.   Current firm rankings thus inevitably cause BigLaw market observers to ponder which are the currently rising or waning power-players therein, which is the next to be doomed to the in-memoriam list, and which three in all likelihood before the end of this decade.  Who are the great sharks in the ocean of BigLaw and who are their likely prey?

It is no secret that not only the biggest and strongest U.S. based firms have an increasingly whetted appetite for smaller firms which will enable them to enhance their global major market presence, but their London-based competitors are particularly hungry as well (see, for example “British Firms Still Trying to Conquer New York“, and “Are we about to see more UK-US law firm mergers?”).   Law firm sharks generally first seek prey not only with compatible and ideally complimentary practice areas, profitability and billing rates, but also displaying signs of weakness.   We refer our readers to our earlier post entitled  37 Signs That Your Firm May Be Sinking for indicators as to when a firm may become an especially attractive potential acquisition candidate.

In the meantime, our smaller and weaker players are increasingly frenzied to overcome the threat of falling victim to the hunt generally by one or a combination of several means:  merger with a relative equal in stature and profitability, see, for example, “Law Firm Mergers Off To Hot Start In 2017” ; “Law Firm Merger Mania Continues in First Quarter of 2017“;  “Law Firm Mergers Keep Pace with 2015’s Record”);  so called “one-off” individual lawyer or practice group lateral acquisitions, see, for example, The Lateral Report: Moves Hit a Post-Recession High;  Lateral Love: A Near-Record Year for Lateral Hires” or developing or enhancing a special niche or other competitive advantage.  See, for example,  “5 Reasons Large Companies Are Turning To Boutique Firms“;  “Boutique Law Firms: The Future of the Legal Profession?

In short, in the ever-increasingly treacherous ocean of BigLaw, it’s now more than ever be or be eaten.  Our consultants at Hanover Legal remain on call to assist all our clients in assessing how not only to survive, but grow faster, more efficient and thrive.

Fourth Quarter 2015 Prognosis

With Labor Day firmly behind us and the summer of 2015 wistfully fading into our memories, now is an opportune time for Hanover Legal to offer a look back into some key BigLaw events over the last few months and a glimpse forward into the trajectory of our collective ice-breaker as we head into fiscal year 2016.

We commence here with a sobering reminder that the waters in which we sail remain perilous as we recall the late 2014 demise of our once venerable Bingham McCutcheon, following into the murky graveyard beneath the waters which we continue to navigate deceased stalwarts such as Dewey & LeBoeuf, Wolf Block, Howrey, Thacher Proffitt, Heller Ehrman, McKee Nelson, Thelen and Dreier — continuing, since the demise of Brobeck in 1999, the rate of one major firm fatality every year-and-a-half.  If this pattern continues, which all observations and logic would dictate, another major firm will collapse within the next twelve months or so, one major firm New York managing partner recently sharing with us his own perception of many of the now highest ranking firms on the infamous Am-Flawed ranking charts as merely “houses of cards.”  While many leading media outlets attempt to predict the identity of our next casualty by pursuing superficial criteria such as mere numbers of lateral departures and take every opportunity to add fuel to the fire of anxiety by correlating such numbers to levels of financial distress, the sad general perception is that most of our remaining major firms continue to hold their cards tightly to their chests, inflating revenue and profitability numbers in order to enhance the impression of health and stability wherever possible, only increasing the need for careful due diligence of a firm’s financial health when any player may be seeking a merger partner or contemplating a lateral move.  To be sure, the ongoing saga of the collapse of Dewey & Leboeuf and criminal trial of its former Chairman and top financial officers for inflating financial figures and misrepresenting the firm’s financial state with the goal of retaining and attracting top rainmakers and securing loans is only our most egregious public example of this disturbing phenomenon.

Nonetheless, the quest for global omnipresence remains ever-alluring.  The firm that has most closely approached Dewey & Leboeuf in terms of media attention thus far in 2015 is Dentons, whose attorney head-count on its “vereins” platform which loosely congregates under one corporate umbrella disparate offices while allowing individual offices to largely operate autonomously, has swelled to over 6000 worldwide spread out over 125 some-odd offices, primarily as a result of mergers this year with China behemoth DeCheng and Australia’s McKenna Long.  In doing so, Dentons has now easily eclipsed the previous BigLaw leader in those categories, namely DLA.  Tellingly, DLA’s recently departed managing partner Tony Angel remarked just before parting ways with DLA on April 30, 2015, only four years after having been brought aboard from Linklaters in one of the most high profile hirings this decade, as follows:  “This is an extraordinary time. In five years, firms like ours will have had to become much more optimized because our other global advantages will have been watered down. You need to add another string to your bow. That might be having a Peerpoint-style operation or a Belfast, for example.”  (See http://www.thelawyer.com/analysis/dla-pipers-wingman/3033806.article?cmpid=dnews_1043004.)   We at Hanover Legal similarly consistently encourage all major players to shed fat wherever possible so as to maximize the chances of competing effectively no matter what the overall revenue rankings will yield, and caution observers not to confuse careful and deliberate trimming sometimes in the form of necessary layoffs and lateral departures as a symptom of illness, but rather consider the equally plausible possibility that such trimming may be the best evidence of a conscious and healthy effort on the part of management to trim-down and shape-up.

More generally, the financial performance of our major firms so far this year appears mixed, Citi’s Private Bank’s Law Firm Group offering the following summary of the performance of our major firms during the first half of this fiscal year in its August 2015 report:  “The optimist and pessimist will each find support in the first half 2015 results: Momentum clearly improved, but overall results fell short of the first half of 2014. The legal industry picked up steam in the second quarter after the slow start to 2015… Revenue growth accelerated due to improved demand, and expense growth slowed, relieving the pressure on margins.”  (See http://www.americanlawyer.com/id=1202734681984?rss=rss_tal_amlawdaily&slreturn=20150820111400.)

That said, our increasingly few financially robust and healthy firms continue to recruit lateral talent aggressively and pay handsomely for superstar talent with portable books of business or business generating potential particularly in regulatory-oriented fields like white collar defense and even more explosively cutting-edge areas like cyber-security, especially given the lightning speed at which the technology driven environment in which we all toil is evolving and with which our firm leaders recognize a client-driven imperative to stay one step ahead of the curve.

In sum, we predict a robust fourth quarter 2015 in terms of lateral activity as firms gear up for fiscal year 2016, which promises to be the most competitive and challenging year for our major firms in decades, and assure all our law firm and attorney clients that we remain on board with you as you seek to better understand the market of BigLaw and optimize your ability to successfully navigate these tumultuous waters during the months ahead.

Happy New Year and Full Steam Ahead

As we head into 2015, our major law firms are by and large optimistic with respect to their revenue and profitability, and eager to take opportunistic gambles on lateral talent as well as ventures into new markets.   This optimism is tempered however with the still-fresh memories of the brutal financial crisis of 2008 and the unprecedented law firm layoffs that followed, coupled with heightened sensitivity to the reality of the ongoing avalanche of major law firm collapses at a rate of one every year-and-a-half since the year 2000.

As such, while law firm managers are eager to grow strategically, they do so  with heightened due diligence and caution;  no firm wants to be the next Bingham McCutcheon, Dewey & LeBouef, Howrey, Heller Ehrman, Wolf Block, McKee Nelson, Thacher Profit, Thelen, Dreier or Brobeck.  Similarly, no attorney wants to be on board the next Titanic as it starts to sink.

As we enter our fifteenth year in business, Hanover Legal remains constantly vigilant of the health of our major law firms both financially and culturally and prepared to assist our finest attorneys in their efforts to secure spots at those most likely to provide enhanced stability as well as financial and cultural well-being to them going forward, and reciprocally to our finest firms in the increasingly fierce competition for top talent on the lateral attorney market.

We wish all our firm and attorney clients a healthy, happy and prosperous 2015!

One-Stop Shopping and the BigLaw Balloon

We are quickly approaching the end of Q2 2014 and heading into summer, but the open sky in which BigLaw flies is not likely to provide much rest and relaxation during the warmer months ahead. Relentless market winds offer constant opportunity to our stronger firms to increasingly distance themselves from their less healthy competitors, in particular those simply getting bigger.

A cursory comparison of the AmFlawed 100 ranking chart of America’s top-grossing law firms for the years 2009 and 2013 shows that while only two firms in 2009 exceeded gross revenue of $2 billion (Baker & McKenzie at $2,112,000,000 followed closely by Skadden at $2,100,000,000), five firms surpassed the $2 billion gross revenue mark in 2013: DLA at $2,481,000,000, followed by Baker & McKenzie at $2,419,000,000, Latham at $2,285,000,000, Skadden at $2,235,000,000 and Kirkland & Ellis at $2,016,000,000 — DLA’s jump to the lead of the pack in 2013 representing a more than doubling of their 2009 13th place finish of $1,014,500,000. Moreover, while in 2009 a total of 13 firms enjoyed gross revenue in excess of $1 billion, by 2013 almost double that number or 23 firms had surpassed the $1 billion barrier.

These gross revenue figures indicate an unabated urge to grow bigger presumably based on the premise that one-stop global shopping is an attractive marketing tool in the increasingly interconnected global business environment. While that may be true, big of course is not necessarily strong or healthy; the five most productive firms based on purported revenue-per-lawyer figures ranking only between 13th and 54th on the gross revenue chart, namely: 1) Wachtell, first in RPL at $2,310,000 but only 54th in gross revenue at $601,000,000; 2) Sullivan & Cromwell, second in RPL at $1,590,000 but 13th in gross revenue at $1,278,000,000; 3) Quinn Emanuel, third in RPL at $1,445,000 but 26th in gross revenue at $972,5000,000; 4) Cravath, fourth in RPL at $1,430,000 but only 52nd in gross revenue at $614,000,000; and 5) Simpson Thacher, fifth in RPL at $1,350,000 but 20th in gross revenue at $1,128,500,000.   While the saga of Dewey & LeBoeuf – which ranked towards the top of the AmFlawed chart in all categories across the board the very year they collapsed – dictates that the chart need be taken with salt, it also evidences the fact that big sometimes means dangerously obese but never in and of itself healthy.

That said, we at Hanover Legal always caution our candidates considering a new firm to focus on its health – not its rankings on the AmFlawed 100 chart.

37 Signs That Your Firm May Be Sinking

It does not take a legal market expert to know that the landscape of major law firms is changing like that of the polar ice caps. Since 2000 at least nine firms have collapsed from their perches amidst the Am-Flawed 100 directly into oblivion, namely: Dewey & LeBoeuf, Howrey, Heller Ehrman, Thacher Proffitt, McKee Nelson, Wolf Block, Dreier, Thelen, and Brobeck — or on average one firm every one and a half years.