Big Law is scoring talent from the Big 4. Here's which law firms are winning the battle for professional services talent.

Carmine Di Sibio, CEO of EY

Summary List Placement

As the country’s largest law firms continue to grow in size and scope, many are now looking beyond just legal talent to drive their business forward.

Traditionally, law firms have tapped all-star lawyers to leadership roles like managing recruiting or balancing the budget. This strategy was often OK when most law firms had a only few hundred professionals and maybe a few million dollars of business every year.

But as many top law firms have now grown to include more than 1,000 professionals, with the top firms grossing more than $1 billion in annual revenue, they’ve realized that a busy partner — who could already be working 80 or more hours per week and hasn’t gone to business school — might not be the best person to also lead strategic initiatives or manage firm financials. Instead, Big Law firms are now staffing up their c-suites and business departments with people who used to work for prestigious professional services or accounting firms.

A Major, Lindsey & Africa recruiter said in a Colliers report that in 95% of the C-suite searches she conducts, her law firm clients are open to considering candidates who are not lawyers. That same report found that the group of law firm executives “increasingly hails from industries outside of law.”

The talent is flowing in both directions: every year, hundreds of Big Law employees find a new home at a Big Four firm, either to head up an alternative legal service, join the in-house legal team, or move into a nonlawyer role.

New data from Revelio Labs, an alternative-data provider that reviews millions of public employment records — from LinkedIn to immigration filings — with the goal of creating “the world’s first universal HR database,” show that Big Law has been recruiting hundreds of people per year from Deloitte, KPMG, EY, and PwC. In 2020 alone, the top 100 largest law firms by revenue hired 843 professions from Big Four firms.

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Some of these moves come from Big Four alums who went to law school and were then hired as associates. Others are nonlawyers who join a firm’s business side and handle internal operations like strategy, IT, data privacy, sales, finance, marketing, and more.

Tom Clay, a leader at the legal-consulting firm Altman Weil, said that these sorts of hires have been happening for many years now, and they started when law firms realized that if they wanted to improve as a business, they needed specialists to help them determine their pricing structures and practice-group profit margins to maximize profitability.

“The place to go look for that was obviously the Big Four,” he said.

Years later, law firms continue to devote more time and energy to building out their business sides with these types of hires, explained Alisa Levin, co-founder of legal recruiting firm Greene-Levin-Snyder. She told Insider she expects this trend to continue and that Big Four employees specifically are coveted for these new roles because although they deal in a “very different kind” of professional services, they offer a similar level of professional training and client service background that a law firm would. 

Law firms have brought on Big Four alums throughout their entire org charts. They’ve hired top-level executives like Christina Burns, Kirkland & Ellis’s senior recruiting and development leader, who joined in March 2020 after a 17-year stint at Deloitte, and Peter May, a former Deloitte partner and chief human resource officer, has been Baker McKenzie’s chief people officer since 2014. They’ve also looked hired in other roles like the former PwC IT professional who now leads Norton Rose Fulbright’s eDiscovery services and the White & Case project manager who used to be a KPMG associate.

The law firms mentioned either declined to comment or did not return requests for comment about their business-side hires and strategy.

The graph below shows the movement to and from law firms from 2010 to 2020.

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“A lot of these hires are actually doing important internal support functions at law firms, as Big Law has gotten only bigger and bigger,” said Jason Winmill, a legal consultant at Argopoint who works largely with corporate legal departments and helps them select outside counsel. “If you need to build out your IT capabilities, firms are just hiring some of the top people from a Big Four firm.”

Levin and Winmill said there has also been a push at some law firms to expand into more consulting and professional services offerings to clients, although the flow of people moving into these roles is much smaller. Paul Hastings, for example, last year hired Deloitte alum BJ D’Avella to head its new life sciences consulting group, which works in tandem with the life sciences legal practice group and reports directly to the firm’s managing partner. And Dentons last year staffed a new crisis communications group headed by former FTI Consulting professionals.

Read more: Mega law firm Dentons has poached another FTI crisis communications pro as it looks to create a one-stop shop for clients

The Big 4 is hiring less from Big Law, but there is still an appetite for lawyers who can help them launch alternative legal services.

Big Four’s hiring from Big Law has been in flux since about 2015, when the industry hired about the same number of people it lost to law firms. 479 people moved from Big Law to the Big Four in 2020, down from an all-time high of 568 people the year before, according to Revilio’s data.

Some professionals moving from Big Law to the Big Four are lawyers joining in-house legal teams or people leaving the legal profession to become consultants or strategists. Others are joining to guide the legal arms of KPMG, Deloitte, EY, and PwC, which differ in focus but by and large on offering digital and automated legal innovation services to existing firm clients.

For example, Deloitte Legal employs 2,500 professionals to offer legal advisory, legal management consulting, and legal managed services to clients, while KPMG’s Global Legal Services describes its role as “strategic advisor” to in-house counsel.

“On the other side of the coin, there are some Big Four firms trying to create legal service offerings with law plus nonlaywer services in a package,” Winmill said, adding that eDiscovery has been big focus for Big Four firms. 

Recent moves from Big Law to the Big Four include a former White & Case legal assistant to Deloitte; a former senior associate at Baker McKenzie who is now a senior manager in Deloitte’s global employment services; and a former Latham associate who is now KPMG’s assistant general counsel.

The graph below shows the movement to and from Big Four firms from 2010 to 2020.

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SEE ALSO: Hiring decision-makers at Skadden, Latham & Watkins and a top recruiter lay out the 7 dos and don’ts of virtual interviews for Big Law summer associate programs

SEE ALSO: More than 100 Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC alums sit on S&P 500 company boards, fueling concerns over conflicts of interest. Here’s our exclusive look at the web of board members that used to work at Big 4 firms. Samantha Stokes and Sawyer Click Feb 9, 2021, 11:48 AM

SEE ALSO: Deloitte’s audit CEO lays out the skills that will give job seekers an edge

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