As corporate transactions picked up at the end of 2020, there were signs the Big Law talent market was ready to take off. Still, nobody could have predicted the frenetic pace of lateral moves in 2021.
The 50 largest firms hired nearly 1,100 lateral partners through mid-December, according to Firm Prospects, which tracks law firm rosters. That’s up 76% from 2020—a relatively down year for Big Law moves during the pandemic. It’s also a 20% jump from 2019, when things were more “normal.”
While this story highlights partner moves, it was an even a bigger year for associate hiring, as firms scrambled to handle the flood of work in a high-demand market. Total lawyer hiring reached more than 6,600 lawyers at the top 50 firms, a 110% increase from 2020. It was also up 40% from the number of lawyer hires those firms made in 2019, which Firm Prospects Managing Director Adam Oliver called a “more normal” year.
The year was defined by a surge in demand that Big Law hasn’t experienced since before the Great Recession. Spotting an opportunity, firms made their moves. New York-centric firms flocked to California. Lockstep firms traditionally averse to lateral hiring found an acquisitive streak. Technology and life sciences lawyers were the belles of the ball.
“There has never been such an incredibly aggressive hunger and willingness to pay whatever it takes to get and hold onto the best talent,” said legal recruiter Kay Hoppe. “There is just nothing calm about this market. It’s competitive. It’s exhausting. And it is going to reset firms’ standings.”
Here are the moves that defined a super-sized year in lateral recruiting.
January: Paul Weiss Hires Four Partners in Northern California
Paul Weiss entered the Northern California market in 2020, making a splash with hires from Boies Schiller. It expanded that roster in 2021 by adding partners from Orrick and Kirkland. Orrick’s Melinda Haag, Walter Brown, and Randy Luskey joined as partners in the litigation department, while Kirkland M&A partner Jeremy Veit joined the corporate department.
January: Davis Polk Hires Paul Marquardt
Coming off a blowout 2020, Davis Polk opened the checkbook early in 2021 after saying it would relax its lockstep compensation model to better attract and retain prominent partners. Marquardt, a financial crimes specialist who came from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, joined Davis Polk’s financial institutions group in Washington. He previously led the foreign investment and security practice at Cleary, where he practiced for more than 25 years.
January: Sidley Austin Hires Asher Rubin
Formerly the co-leader of Hogan Lovells’ global life sciences industry practice, Rubin brought a reported eight-figure book of business to Sidley.
He had already represented clients including Exact Sciences Corp., Galera Therapeutics Inc., and NextCure Inc., in his practice advising on major financing and corporate transactions. Rubin was a major addition to an already big group at Sidley, which had a roughly 200-lawyer life sciences group at the time.
January: King & Spalding Hires Richard Zall
The New York-based lawyer, who had previously led Proskauer’s healthcare practice, took over as chair of King & Spalding’s healthcare transactions and regulatory practice. It was one of a number of high-profile hires in the healthcare space early in the year.
February: Cravath Hires David Portilla
In a rare lateral hire, Cravath brought on a former Debevoise & Plimpton bank regulatory partner in Portilla. It was Cravath’s first lateral hire since 2018. Looking back, it could have presaged Cravath’s decision later in 2021 to modify its strict lockstep compensation system for partners.
March: McDermott Hires Douglas Carsten
Douglas Carsten’s move from Wilson Sonsini to McDermott was indicative of at least three major trends in Big Law hiring early this year. Firms that outperformed in 2020 were more active than others, and McDermott had revenue growth of 18% in 2020 with profits per partner surging more than 25%. Life sciences partners, like Carsten, were in high demand throughout the year. Major law firms were willing, for the first time in memory, to hire new partners in cities where they didn’t have formal office space. Welcome to San Diego, McDermott.
March: Jones Day Hires Andrew Lelling
Lelling oversaw prosecutions in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal as the former Massachusetts U.S. Attorney. But he struck out on a new path this year, part of an effort to build out Jones Day’s white-collar investigations and trial practice in New England.
March: Gibson Dunn Hires Eugene Scalia
Scalia was sworn in as the 28th Labor Secretary in September, 2019. He left Gibson Dunn to take the role, and he returned to the firm this year. Scalia was a highly valued partner prior to his government stint, earning more than $6.2 million in income from the firm the year before joining the Trump administration, according to financial disclosures.
April: Kirkland Hires Christine Okike
Okike’s move from Skadden to Kirkland was notable since it marked the first lateral addition to Kirkland’s giant restructuring group since 2009.
The move came a year after a wave of Covid-related bankruptcies kicked off in 2020, but the practice has been relatively quiet amid corporate support from governments and central banks.
April: Irell & Manella Hires Andrei Iancu
Iancu rejoined Irell after he departed his position as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s under secretary of commerce for intellectual property. Lawyers often return to the same firm after a stint in government service, but Iancu’s move was a victory for a firm that has seen some notable departures in recent years.
May: Cooley Hires Nine Partners in Chicago
Cooley made a splash landing in Chicago, hiring nine partners from local law offices to take advantage of what the firm says is an active group of clients in the Midwest venture scene. The initial hires included former Winston & Strawn partner Rick Ginsberg, ex-DLA Piper partner Greg Grossman, and former Latham partner Laurie Bauer. Cooley’s specialty representing emerging companies in the tech sector helped it become one of the fastest-growing law firms in the past decade with its revenue more than tripling since 2010. The firm’s Chicago office ended the year with more than 40 lawyers.
May: Sidley Austin Hires Holt Foster
Foster, a Dallas-based energy transactions partner, departed Thompson & Knight following the firm’s plans to merge with Holland & Knight. A former management committee member and head of Thompson & Knight’s Dallas office, his move to Sidley was emblematic of two story lines: How quickly the Texas energy practice recovered following the pandemic, and the familiar tale of partners fleeing firms ahead of a big merger.
May: Kirkland Hires John Kaercher
Kirkland entered into new markets, including Salt Lake City and Austin, in 2021 as Big Law expanded to broader geographies in the wake of its successful experiment with remote work. The firm planted a flag in Austin with the hire of Kaercher, a former co-chair of Baker Botts’ private equity group. Kirkland’s foray into Texas has been one of the most successful market entries for any firm, as the private equity powerhouse now has around 300 lawyers in the Lone Star State, spread across Houston, Dallas, and now the capital city.
May: Quinn Emanuel Moves Into Miami
Quinn Emanuel launched a new office in Miami with 10 lawyers from Hogan Lovells and Greenspoon Marder. It was the firm’s third new outpost in 2021 and was indicative of the moves Big Law made into newer regional markets in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The hires include Hogan Lovells litigation partner John O’Sullivan and Greenspoon Marder commercial litigation partner Olga Vieira. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez joined as of counsel.
August: Mayer Brown Hires Martha McGarry
The first woman to maker partner in the vaunted M&A practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, McGarry joined Mayer Brown after she bumped up against Skadden’s mandatory retirement age of 70.
McGarry was among Mayer Brown’s 52 lateral partner hires over the year, more than double the firm’s total in the previous year.
She has been a prolific M&A lawyer for decades, spearheading deals for American Express Co., Coca-Cola Co., and Hershey Co. McGarry said she still has a strong desire to work for clients, which she called “part of the daily fabric of my life.”
August: Latham Enters Austin With Partner Trio
Latham & Watkins entered the Austin market in a big way, luring partners from DLA Piper, Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, and later Baker Botts. Latham was the first out-of-state law firm to make a major expansion in Houston. Its Austin launch used the same strategy: Pick up top partners from local firms with deep connections. The new Austin office is full of alumni from nearby University of Texas Law School, which is an indicator the firm plans to recruit top graduates to stay in the up-and-coming market for Big Law talent.
September: Freshfields Hires Damien Zoubek
Freshfields’ U.S. hiring spree got a shot in the arm when the firm attracted prominent Cravath dealmaker Zoubek. The New York-based partner had represented Canadian National Railway in a nearly $34 billion acquisition and was a leader on the firm’s work for buy-now-pay-later company Afterpay Limited in its $29 billion sale to Square Inc. Zoubek left Cravath after 22 years, departing what was at the time one of the last remaining “true” lockstep firms to join Freshfields, which has modified its compensation system to attract star hires.
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September: Willkie Hires Trio of Partners in Los Angeles.
Willkie Farr & Gallagher opened an office in Los Angeles by bringing aboard three Venable partners: Alan Epstein, Michele Mulrooney, and Alex Weingarten. The firm has been on an expansive streak after launching in Chicago in 2020, and building out its West Coast presence had been a strategic focus for the firm.
September: Fenwick & West Hires Thomas Ensign and Melissa Duffy
Amid a surge in its underlying tech and venture capital practice, Fenwick & West launched a Washington office by adding two regulatory partners.
Thomas Ensign came over from Freshfields while Melissa Duffy joined from Dechert. The hires came before the firm had picked an office space, continuing a trend of Big Law bringing on lawyers in new cities.
November: Cleary Hires Heather Nyong’o
An antitrust litigator who bolstered the firm’s leading position in that hot market, Nyong’o joined Cleary from WilmerHale. Cleary became the latest Wall Street firm to venture into the San Francisco Bay Area, led by clients such as Google and Nvidia. The firm has done important antitrust work for the tech giants on major international deals over the past few years.