The 7 biggest lawyer moves that shaped the first half of 2021, according to top legal recruiters

Krishna Veeraraghavan of Paul Weiss, Melinda Haag of Paul Weiss, and David Portilla of Cravath are pictured.

Summary List Placement

For many elite law firms, 2020 was their best year yet. Judging by some of their new hires, 2021 might be even busier.

Law firms made 23.5% fewer partner hires from other law firms in 2020 than in 2019, according to data released this week by the National Association for Law Placement.  The drop-off in junior-lawyer moves was even steeper, around 30%.

But in the second half of 2020, work picked back up. Startups sought capital; special-purpose acquisition companies hunted for deals; and companies including Nvidia, Adobe and Salesforce announced billion-dollar acquisitions, ginning up work for Big Law. Litigators returned to court as vaccinations increased.

More billable hours and higher rates combined with reduced travel expenses helped law firms post new profit records. Total profits at the 100 highest-grossing US law firms grew by more than 13% compared to 2019, according to data from ALM Media, which publishes The American Lawyer.

Flush with cash and drowning in work, law firms went out in search of new talent. Kirkland & Ellis offered signing bonuses of more than $200,000 to some associates, Insider reported. By the middle of February, law firms at the highest end of the market had hired more than twice as many partners as they had in the same period the year before, according to Bloomberg Law.

“There has never been more activity at the lateral-partner level in the tippy-top tier,” said Scott Yaccarino, a recruiter at Empire Search Partners.

Insider spoke with six legal headhunters about law-firm hires through June 2021 that struck them as significant. Here are the names we heard the most often.

Paul Weiss’ launch in San Francisco

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison has long been an elite firm, with clients like Apollo, Apple, Blackstone, and Exxon. In January, the firm made its West Coast expansion official, adding Melinda Haag, formerly the US attorney in Northern California, her colleagues Walter Brown and Randy Luskey, and Jeremy Veit, a private-equity lawyer from Kirkland & Ellis.

The San Francisco additions weren’t the firm’s only big hires in early 2021. In January, it added the mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer Krishna Veeraraghavan from Sullivan & Cromwell, who represented AB InBev and Amazon in major acquisitions. Later, it added David Tarr, a leader of the finance practice at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, and Brian Krause, a tax partner from Skadden who’d done deals for Pfizer and Exxon.

Asher Rubin and Adriana Tibbitts, Sidley

Attorney Adriana Tibbitts of Sidley Austin.Attorney Asher Rubin of Sidley Austin.A former leader of the Hogan Lovells life-science practice, Asher Rubin, who moved with fellow partner Adriana Tibbitts, was one of the first high-profile lateral moves of 2021. According to their law-firm bios, they have advised a long list of pharmaceutical and biotech companies in negotiations with lenders, investors, and major life-sciences players like Pfizer, Eli Lilly, and GlaxoSmithKline.

Bloomberg reported that Rubin brought in more than $10 million in business to Hogan Lovells before making the switch to Sidley. In May, another Hogan Lovells life-sciences partner, Adam Golden, moved to Freshfields.

Nick Palumbo, Davis Polk

Attorney Nicholas Palumbo of Davis Polk & Wardwell.Nick Palumbo moved from White & Case to Davis Polk & Wardwell in January. His clients have included Golub Capital, Owl Rock Capital, and Antares Capital, which have loaned billions of dollars to private-equity firms and their portfolio companies to finance M&A deals.

The addition came shortly after Davis Polk abandoned its traditional “lockstep” compensation system. It used to be the norm for a partner’s paycheck to increase with tenure, instead of how much business they brought in, but most big firms have modified or scrapped such systems.

David Portilla, Cravath

Lockstep isn’t dead, though, and the law firms that have kept it — including Cravath, Swaine & Moore — are often held in high regard by clients and competitors. In February, David Portilla, a banking lawyer who helped write Dodd-Frank rules while he was with the Treasury Department’s Financial Stability Oversight Council, joined Cravath from Debevoise & Plimpton.

While both firms are known for long-lasting institutional relationships with clients, Portilla’s move stood out because Cravath rarely makes lateral hires. The last partner the firm brought on from outside was Katherine Forrest, who rejoined Cravath in 2018 after serving as a federal judge.

Sean Moran, Vinson & Elkins

Attorney Sean Moran of Vinson & ElkinsWith solar and wind generation and energy-storage technologies advancing rapidly, Vinson & Elkins hired a renewable-energy team led by Sean Moran in February. The six-lawyer team has advised investors and affiliates of bulge-bracket banks on financing and tax considerations on clean-energy projects.

Others on Moran’s team included Mike Joyce, Lauren Collins, and Aaron Prince, with most of the group’s lawyers in Los Angeles. The group joined from Wilson Sonsini, a firm with roots in California that caters to clients in the tech industry.

Cooley’s launch in Chicago

Cooley, one of several law firms that has ridden Silicon Valley’s wave to profits and growth, set up shop in Chicago in May. The firm hired nine partners from DLA Piper, Latham & Watkins, and Winston & Strawn. It followed that up a month later with hires of Matt Kutcher, a former Latham leader who’d moved to the US attorney’s office in Chicago; Bobby Earles, who’d been at Kirkland; and Lei Shen, formerly of Mayer Brown.

Eric Sibbitt, Paul Hastings

Eric Sibbitt, who led the busy fintech team at O’Melveny & Myers, jumped to the San Francisco office of Paul Hastings in June. A corporate lawyer who helps companies negotiate deals and structure equity and debt offerings, he has represented Bittrex and the Crypto Rating Council, according to statements by his previous firm.

Jonathan Chou and others, Goodwin Procter

Goodwin Procter, a firm with hubs in Boston and the Bay Area known for its focus on the tech and life-sciences industries, capped its steady stream of lateral-partner hires in the first half of the year with announcements in late June that it had hired a dozen lawyers, including a nine-person group from Orrick that advises clients in Goodwin’s core business areas.

Jonathan Chou, Peter Fusco, Geoff Willard, William Wilson and several others joined from Orrick. On the same day, the firm said it had hired a pair of partners from Jones Day in Silicon Valley.

“What stands out about Goodwin is just the volume and how much collective power” the firm has added this year, said Rachel Nonaka, a managing director with the search firm Macrae.

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