Out-Of-Town Firms Keep Eye On NY Growth, Despite Virus

By Xiumei Dong
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Law360 (July 1, 2020, 4:13 PM EDT) -- Once the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, New York, as the world's leading financial center, has continued to draw the eye of out-of-town and national firms, several of which picked up local talent in recent weeks.

Even with the challenge of conducting interviews remotely, four law firms — Thompson Hine LLP, Vinson & Elkins LLP, Foley Hoag LLP and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati PC — added partners in June to bolster their presence in the Big Apple.

Cleveland-based Thompson Hine has hired Allen & Overy LLP senior counsel Joshua Shapiro as a partner in its antitrust, competition and distribution practice group, and Houston-based Vinson & Elkins boosted its restructuring and reorganization practice with George Howard, who joined from Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

In the same month, Boston-based Foley Hoag LLP brought on former Norton Rose Fulbright partner Jeffrey I.D. Lewis to boost its patent litigation practice, and Silicon Valley-based Wilson Sonsini nabbed Salil Gandhi from Goodwin Procter LLP to be a partner in its emerging companies practice.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Thornburg LLP opened a new office in New York after hiring 11 lawyers from several firms in the city.

Since late 2019, the Indianapolis-founded firm has hired six partners and five other seasoned attorneys from firms including Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP.

"When we entered this COVID crisis back in March, it was a great unknown, and so firms were managing for the worst as they should do, but we now have several months of experience in terms of business, in terms of ability to work remotely," said Brian Burlant, a New York-based managing director at legal consulting and recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa.

As law firms have gained confidence in their abilities to serve clients and work remotely, Burlant said he has seen legal recruiting picking up again in the city, including the continued expansion of outside firms.

"It's always typical that out-of-town firms try to hire in New York because it's such a competitive market, really the most competitive market," Burlant said. "So to establish a credible foothold for their clients and talent, they have to recruit aggressively."

But with a legal market that has often been dominated by elite firms, leaders at non-native firms say convincing local talent to join their young but growing offices requires considerable strategic planning.

"One of the challenges is when you're not an indigenous firm in New York or viewed as a New York firm, you first have to convince someone that you're committed to the city," said Vinson & Elkins LLP Chairman Mark Kelly.

According to Kelly, Texas-based Vinson & Elkins has been investing heavily in the New York market in the past several years by making strategic hires in areas including private equity, infrastructure, real estate, restructuring, litigation, project finance and shareholder activism.

In 2019, it added 19 lawyers to its New York office, including 16 real estate transactional attorneys from New York-based litigation firm Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP led by partners Wallace Schwartz, Adam Endick and Julia Sanabria.

Vinson & Elkins's New York office, which opened in 1998, has grown to 90 attorneys, the firm said. To accommodate further expansion in the city, the firm moved its office into a new space in Bryant Park's Grace Building in February.

"Clearly, we're not as large — we don't have 300 or 400 lawyers in New York," Kelly said, while adding that some attorneys have joined for "the opportunity to have an ability to help grow and shape that office and be a part of that, and not just be a cog in the wheel."

Foley Hoag opened its New York office five years ago after luring two partners from Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP and another from Kelley Drye & Warren LLP. Jeff Collins, the firm's co-managing partner, said it too had been strategically plotting its growth in the city.

"We didn't go to New York with the idea that we were going to be all things to all people or try to compete with some of the old Wall Street-style firms on large M&A or anything like that," Collins said. "We were focused on three or four particular areas that we have particular strengths [in] and that we thought we could plug really well into the New York market, so it was a very focused strategic opportunity for us."

According to Collins, Foley Hoag now has nearly 30 lawyers based in its New York office. Its focuses there include emerging companies and venture capital, intellectual property, and international litigation and arbitration.

"We actually came close to maxing out our current office space," Collins said. While office space is less of an issue now as everyone is working remotely, Collins noted Foley Hoag would likely move into a bigger space eventually and continue to add members.

"We're trying to be very active in the New York market," he added.

As a midsize law firm, Collins said that Foley Hoag has a lower leverage ratio than many large law firms in New York. This allows the firm to offer partner attention to clients, providing more sophisticated legal services.

In a statement to Law360, Thompson Hine's firmwide managing partner Deborah Read said her firm is investing in New York for the long term.

According to Read, Thompson Hine, which opened its New York office after a merger in 2002 with New York corporate law firm Gould & Wilkie LLP, has 45 lawyers in New York.

"Our service delivery platform is among our competitive advantages," Read said, noting the firm has undertaken several projects since 2013 to offer predictability, transparency and efficiency to clients.

"Our innovation in service delivery is even more critical to clients during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic downturn," Read added. "Both laterals and clients have told us that our focus on innovation to transform the way we deliver our services has been a major draw."

Some firms are also leveraging their non-New York offices to compete with the city's elite law firms.

According to Robert Boller, partner in charge of Barnes & Thornburg's New York office, his firm offers flexible-rate services to financial services providers that are feeling "squeezed" by the other BigLaw firms.

"Our theory was that if we could attract lawyers from other top firms in New York who focused on working with financial services clients — and specifically investment funds and asset management clients — then we could leverage the talent from Barnes & Thornburg's other offices and provide the same quality of service that they would expect from other [large firms], but we would be able to do so in a manner that was just much more creative in terms of the rate structure," Boller said.

--Editing by Philip Shea and Brian Baresch.

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