Category Archives: Round-up

BigLaw’s Heartbreak Hill

Anyone following the market of BigLaw is aware that over the course of the past two decades, AmLaw 100 firms have collapsed or been acquired at the rate of one every year-and-a-half or so, remembering with either nostalgia or disdain once venerable names like Brobeck, Coudert Brothers, Heller Ehrman, Thelen, Brown Raysman, Thacher Profitt, McKee Nelson, Dreier, Howrey, Dewey & LeBoeuf, Wolf Block, Bingham McCutcheon, and Chadbourne.  The demise of most of these firms can be attributed primarily to one fatal flaw which manifested during the various crises we’ve collectively experienced since the onset of this millennium: irrational exuberance and the dot-com bubble, greed and the sub-prime bubble or lack of practice area-diversity and the great recession. Others took stock during periods of relatively stability, arriving at sanguine decisions to salvage what remained viable and attach to a stronger ship or simply dissolve. Either way, the market of BigLaw is contracting quickly and in constant flux, the current pandemic offering no respite.

At the onset of Covid-19, BigLaw by and large halted lateral partner hiring. But as the pandemic continued on with no end in sight, while weaker and more risk-averse firms stagnated on the lateral partner acquisition front many simultaneously suffering increased rates of lateral partner departures, stronger and less risk-averse firms solidified their respective bases acquiring aggressively on the lateral partner market thus increasing revenue and profitability gaps and rendering weaker and less aggressive firms more vulnerable and further diminishing their ability to effectively compete.

Specifically, over the course of this pandemic during which lateral partner activity has dropped approximately thirty percent from pre-pandemic rates (see https://www.law.com/dailybusinessreview/2020/10/08/dragged-down-by-finance-and-energy-the-lateral-market-has-cratered/), firms that have pushed hard and achieved net gains on the lateral partner acquisition front thus widening the gap between them and their competitors include King & Spalding, McDermott, DLA, Greenberg Traurig and Cozen O’Connor (see https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2020/10/12/opportunity-in-crisis-these-firms-seized-on-an-unusual-lateral-hiring-market-in-2020/, citing data accumulated by legal consultancy firm Decipher)). In contrast, from January through August 2020, Boies, Schiller & Flexner hemorrhaged 50 of its 142 partners or over one-third of its partnership while only adding two lateral partners during the same period. (See https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/these-larger-law-firms-had-the-most-partner-exits-one-firm-says-pandemic-changed-career-plans/).

Over the next few months we can expect to see more firms coming out of lateral partner hibernation and anticipate hiring approaching pre-pandemic rates, with continuing strong lateral activity in bankruptcy and data privacy and increasing movement in labor and employment, white collar and other regulatory specialties. That said, as our fiercely competitive market works its way through these current challenging times, the pack of leading firms will continue to dwindle in number and distance itself from weaker or more risk-averse firms, some of which will inevitably be acquired or dissolve as BigLaw further contracts.

Thankfully and much more importantly though, now with an effective Covid-19 vaccine apparently only months away, we may finally be approaching the top of this particularly excruciating Heartbreak Hill. In the meantime, we at Hanover Legal remain on call and available to assist law firm managers and partners with whom we are privileged to work towards the achievement of their goals with respect to the market, as we have during the previous challenging periods we have experienced together since our founding in 2000.

Stay safe and healthy and Happy Holidays!

Killing & Eating and its Ascent to the Summit

As we approach the midway point of calendar year 2018, we observe the New York Yankees of BigLaw, Kirkland & Ellis, acquiring Guillermo Stantons ad nauseaum in its quest to pull away from the rest of the world’s major league firms in the revenue rankings.  Clearly, K&E is not resting on its laurels in breaking the $3 billion barrier in gross revenue last year after increasing its bottom line to $3.165 billion from $2.65 the previous year, squeaking by now number two Latham in that category by $100 million.  See https://www.law.com/2018/03/22/what-is-the-new-normal-for-kirkland-ellis/

To fully appreciate K&E’s laser-focused quest to ascend to the top of the charts, one need only look at the pace at which K&E is achieving its record setting accomplishments, its 2017 gross revenue figure representing a more than 100 percent increase over its pre-recession total in 2007 and 19.4 percent increase from 2016.  But perhaps even more remarkably, K&E is simultaneously nearing the top of the BigLaw standings in profitability as well, reporting $4.7 million in profits per equity partner for number three in the nation in that category, topped only by Wachtell and Quinn Emanuel.  See https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2018/03/21/kirkland-overtakes-latham-as-worlds-biggest-firm-by-revenue/.

K&E’s strategy essentially boils down to offering tremendous compensation packages to BigLaw’s heaviest power-hitting revenue producers in traditionally lucrative transactional areas like M&A, private equity and restructuring, in contrast to less dependable revenue flows from big-ticket litigation, the decrease in the firm’s percentage of litigators of over ten percent in the last ten years signalling that change in strategic focus.  See http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20180518/issue01/180519866/kirkland-ellis-reaches-the-top-as-it-focuses-on-corporate-work

K&E’s rise to the top has also been facilitated by the resistance of other major firms to change the way they compensate their partners, venerable firms like Cravath, Debevoise & Plimpton and London-based Freshfields maintaining their lockstep compensation structures and their gentility but at the cost of rendering their most productive partners easy prey for K&E, where gentility is generally anathema to the extent it may impede the latter’s ability to compete for revenue streams and maximize profits among their limited echelon of equity partners.  See https://www.thelawyer.com/issues/online-march-2016/partnership-prospects-at-kirkland-ellis/

Consequently, K&E has been able to lure perennial power-hitters seemingly at will, most recently signing litigator Sandra Goldstein from Cravath by reportedly offering her about $11 million for each of her first five years there – perhaps twice as much as she was earning at Cravath – plus a signing bonus.  See https://www.wsj.com/articles/m-a-litigator-sandra-goldstein-leaves-cravath-for-kirkland-ellis-1523663003, and see https://www.reuters.com/article/moves-kirklandells-goldstein/moves-cravath-ma-litigator-goldstein-leaves-for-kirkland-ellis-sources-idUSL1N1RQ28T.  Their acquisition of Goldstein came on the heels  of their acquisition from Cravath earlier this year of M&A superstar Eric Shiele, see https://www.reuters.com/article/kirklandellis-moves-schiele/moves-cravath-ma-lawyer-schiele-to-join-kirkland-ellis-sources-idUSL2N1PI027, who lateraled only about one month after Erica Berthou, formerly global head of Debevoise’s investment management and funds group, jumped aboard along with former Debevoise deputy corporate chair Jordan Murray.  See https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/sites/americanlawyer/2017/12/01/just-in-time-for-the-holidays-kirkland-recruits-another-rainmaker/.  That same month K&E landed private equity star David Higgins from Freshfields as well. See https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/sites/americanlawyer/2017/12/18/freshfields-private-equity-heavyweight-david-higgins-quits-to-join-kirkland-as-london-co-head/.  This no-holds-barred approach to compensation also allowed them to out-compete any venerable lockstep competitor in bidding for Robert Khuzami when he was transitioning from his position of SEC Director of Enforcement, according to public disclosure forms paying him $11.1 million from late 2016 to early 2018.  See https://biglawbusiness.com/government-disclosures-shed-light-on-big-law-salaries/. Other prominent examples of K&E’s successful talent-acquisition ventures include their 2016 luring of appellate superstars Paul Clement and Viet Dinh, while absorbing the rest of their elite 17-lawyer Washington, D.C. boutique as well.  See https://www.wsj.com/articles/kirkland-ellis-to-absorb-bancroft-1473711303.

K&E is working hard not only to win the race for highest revenue and profits per equity partner, but also to brace its attorneys for the rough and tumble emotional ride that goes hand in hand with billing the mountains of hours needed to generate the cash required to satisfy the compensation commitments extended to all these heavy hitters.  About two years ago the firm made headlines for implementing a yoga and meditation program to help their army of non-equity partners, counsel and associates maintain their health while working hard.  Here, for the equity ranks at least, the proof is in the eating of the pudding:  they are currently savoring a hearty 5.2 percent increase in revenue per lawyer to $1.58 million.  See https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2018/03/21/kirkland-overtakes-latham-as-worlds-biggest-firm-by-revenue/.  See also https://blogs.wsj.com/law/2016/05/03/kirkland-ellis-lawyers-to-get-emotional-fitness-training/

In sum, in this era of free-agency, even leading partners at the elite lockstep firms are switching teams at rates never before seen in the history of BigLaw in order to maximize compensation.  While we have no concerns with respect to the ability of those elite lockstep firms to continue to thrive nonetheless in the short term, we expect to see more of those firms modifying their lockstep compensation systems in order to better fend off the attacks of the elite eat-what-you-kill firms on their rainmakers.  As to the rest of the BigLaw market, we expect to see continuing contraction at the rate of at least one major firm collapse every year and a half, while managing partners everywhere invest additional resources in eating heavy-hitters elsewhere and simultaneously protecting against the risk of losing their own to the increasingly predatory lateral market.

We at Hanover Legal remain on board consulting with managing partners and attorneys at all levels as to staying alive and thriving in this competitive and dynamic environment.

 

The Shrinking Pack of BigLaw Front Runners

As we enter the final ten of days of calendar year 2017 and contemplate resolutions and goals for the coming year, we take a moment to shift our focus and glance into the rear view mirror at the twelve months we are soon to leave in our wake.   From the perspective of this market observer, BigLaw 2017 looks like mile 17 of a marathon, with a handful of firms racing neck and neck, leading a pack of elite runners which is growing smaller mile by mile.

In terms of strategy, dominance for law firms can theoretically be attained by organic growth, individual attorney or group lateral acquisitions, smaller firm acquisitions or the rare merger-of-equals, but with the race for global market dominance among the few remaining elite-of-the-elite international firms only gaining intensity and more major-city markets being effectively closed to potential late-comers, law firm mergers and acquisitions have increasingly been defining competitive strategy over the last two decades, with 2017 being a record-setting year with about 100 law firm acquisitions tracked.  See  https://biglawbusiness.com/law-firm-mergers-on-record-breaking-pace-in-2017/.

The venerable London based firm of Norton Rose is a case in point, its 2017 acquisition of former AmLaw 100 stalwart Chadbourne representing only a piece of their current merger plans and recent merger history.  See  http://www.legalweek.com/sites/legalweek/2017/06/30/chadbourne-name-disappears-as-norton-rose-merger-goes-live:  “Norton Rose, the product of a 2013 mega-merger between Houston-based Fulbright & Jaworski and London-based Norton Rose, has expansion plans beyond Chadbourne.  Since the February merger announcement with Chadbourne, the Swiss verein announced plans to unite with Australia’s Henry Davis York … Norton Rose has been through a succession of major mergers.  It merged with Australian firm Deacons in 2010, then in 2011 with Canadian firm Ogilvy Renault and leading South African firm Deneys Reitz. These were followed by a second Canadian merger with Calgary’s Macleod Dixon in 2012, while legacy Norton Rose’s union with US firm Fulbright & Jaworski went live in summer 2013. The firm also inked a deal with Vancouver-based firm Bull Housser & Tupper in September 2016.”

With AmLaw100 firms disappearing at the rate of about one every year and a half, the question of which among them will be the next to fade away is fodder for odd makers.   But look to 2018 to see more BigLaw acquisitions and consolidations than ever before as the leading pack in the race for global dominance continues to shrink and the rest of the market grinds to remain viable.

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.

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.