Lawyers who left firms find themselves being welcomed back
by Cliff Collins
"When I joined Miller Nash in 1985, no partner had ever left the firm, except by dying or retiring," Steven M. Hedberg remarks half seriously. "That has changed."
The marketplace is different today, realizes Hedberg, now managing partner of the Portland office of Perkins Coie. "It’s more expected and accepted now to see more mobility."
Nationally and regionally, the legal community is seeing a phenomenon in which lawyers who once worked for a law firm are returning to that firm, after stints as in-house counsels with corporations, in academia or with other firms, according to Linda Green Pierce, president of Northwest Legal Search Inc., a lawyer recruitment firm in Portland.
Not many years ago, firms’ attitude toward senior lawyers leaving was that attorneys who left were disloyal. Little thought was given to allowing them to return. That generally is no longer the case: Now firms are embracing former colleagues, she says. The change is in mind-set.
"Attitudinally, firms view it as a positive. The attorney is someone they know well, who is a proven entity and in whom they have a major investment. Ten or 15 years ago, that attorney would be viewed as not a team player. But now firms realize that attitude was more emotional than practical."
Green Pierce emphasizes that this is not the same trend as what occurred with associates during the dot-com boom and bust. During that time, "Little high-tech and Internet companies hired quite-junior lawyers and titled them ‘general counsels.’ When many of those companies went belly-up instead of striking gold, those associates often tried to scramble back to the security of a firm." Corporate legal departments downsized, or the allure of stock options disappeared, and law firms looked better to them again.
The difference now is, "I’m seeing experienced lawyers coming back," says Green Pierce.
Competition — among law firms and for the best lawyers — is one of the driving forces behind this philosophical shift. "The war for legal talent will continue unabated for the foreseeable future," writes Maryann Hedaa, who heads Hildebrandt International's Professional Development Group and is co-director of The Hildebrandt Institute. This is due in large part to a projected 15 percent decrease in the number of 35- to 44-year-olds in the United States over the next 15 years, she says.
"In addition," adds Hedaa, "hyper-competition for top-tier, experienced talent will occur as work continues to become more complex and specialized. At the same time, lateral hiring will become increasingly necessary for firms that want to grow."
Firms now understand, as Mark A. Long, managing partner of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt puts it, "We’re in the talent business."
The trend also represents an early indication of optimism about economic improvement, asserts Green Pierce. "In the last six months, I’ve seen a significant energy change toward hiring. Returning people may be part of that, and it’s certainly smart and a shorter hire cycle to rehire someone a firm knows. The temperature is getting warmer in terms of discussing future needs and in hiring, when it was so glacial last year."
Larger Portland firms are seeing it. Thomas C. Sand, managing partner of Miller Nash, quickly rattles off six examples of attorneys who once worked for the firm and now have returned. For example, one went in-house with a client, but "missed the camaraderie and collegiality, and after two years, chose to return." An energy law specialist left for private practice for four or five years before coming back. Another lawyer’s wife got transferred for two years to England, so the lawyer went with her there and taught in a university, then came back to the firm when the couple returned.
A fourth Miller Nash lawyer left for a time to be an in-house counsel, then came back "for the chance to work with several clients instead of just one," Sand explains. Two others took planned leaves of absence: one to earn an advanced degree in international law, the other to work for a client.
"The point of all of these is, a law firm is just people," says Sand. "We don’t manufacture widgets; we provide a service. It is kind of all about the quality of the people." The firm has supported the lawyers on both ends of their leaving and returning.
"Often they find the grass is not greener, and they come back with more experience and knowledge and are better able to serve clients.… They’re able to expand that practice area when they return." If they’ve worked in-house, they learn more about the client and the industry, and can apply it after coming back.
Sand says Miller Nash has lost very few attorneys to competing firms, and if people leave, "we tend to lose them to other walks of life." But he says the firm wouldn’t be averse to taking back a colleague who had left for a competitor, though "it depends on the circumstances."
Perkins Coie’s Hedberg agrees. "It’s very much a case-by-case" decision, he says. "We try to look at what’s best for the firm." If a lawyer leaves to work for one of the firm’s clients, "we often look at it as a positive development." For one thing, the departing lawyer usually will turn first to his or her former firm when referring legal work, or the company itself might send additional work to that firm.
In addition, Perkins Coie takes "a pretty entrepreneurial approach" by sometimes placing firm lawyers for a period of time in a company represented by the firm, Hedberg says. They work for a fixed fee or at a reduced rate. Large companies usually need ongoing legal advice in a specific area, such as real estate, rather than isolated opinions, and hiring an in-house lawyer would be more expensive, he says. "We help the client meet their needs."
Likewise, Davis Wright Tremaine does not assume a punitive stance toward departing colleagues. "If somebody leaves the firm, we don’t feel they are disloyal or that we should in any way be critical of them for leaving," says Michael H. Schmeer, partner in charge of the Portland office. "They have a reason," such as for personal or practice changes. "When they leave, we don’t pick fights with them. ... We don’t say, ‘Pack your bags by 1 o’clock.’ Some people do that."
Schmeer says lawyers leaving for competing firms is less common than leaving to become in-house counsels. "There was a period until about 10 years ago when people in-house were (viewed as) lesser lawyers. That has sort of changed as a general proposition in the legal arena. They have received more stature and are very good lawyers within what is usually a specialized area."
When such lawyers "come back to us, they bring a perspective guys like me don’t have," says Schmeer. They have a "specialized knowledge," and understand the particular problems and pressures of in-house, which makes them even more helpful to the firm’s clients. "We are thrilled to have them back. We know them. We know them to be effective lawyers."
If a lawyer left for a competing firm and later indicated an interest in returning, Schmeer doesn’t believe Davis Wright would be opposed to that, but adds that anytime lawyers want to return, "you have to sort through the issues of why they want to come back. We try to remain on friendly terms with anyone who leaves. We start off from the proposition we aren’t going to fight with people about clients.… It’s so much easier for everybody, particularly for clients."
Jay D. Hull practiced at Davis Wright from 1987 until 1998, when he left to become assistant general counsel for a business telecommunications corporation that did $1 billion in annual revenue. He remained there until last October, when he returned to the firm.
Hull had decided to join the company after he established a good relationship with its general counsel, who invited him to come in-house. "I was anxious to get closer to the business," he says. "You are more likely to be viewed as part of the team rather than an outsider ... in the business side of things, and not strictly with legal matters."
Hull stayed in touch with Davis Wright and sent the firm business. He says the in-house work was a good experience, but "I missed the day-to-day collegiality with other lawyers, and felt Davis Wright Tremaine was positioned to grow." During his time at the outside company, he offered suggestions about how the firm could better serve companies. When he and the firm agreed on his return, the switch provided him the chance to apply what he had learned.
Compensation was comparable in both settings, but the potential for growth is greater in a private law firm, he says. "There is more freedom to be the master of my own destiny, and if I’m able to build business, that will result in higher compensation."
Ingrid Brydolf also recently returned to Davis Wright after spending five years in-house with Legacy Health System. Like Hull, she figured, "long-range, there is more ability to self-direct my practice" by returning to the firm, and also to apply her in-house experience in a broader range of contexts.
"My decision to leave Davis Wright was as an opportunity to advance my health care knowledge with a local health care organization," she says. "It allowed me to engage with a lot of providers and one client, and dive deeply into those issues." Davis Wright was "sorry I was leaving, but was gracious.… They wanted the best for my career. When I looked back to make a change coming out of Legacy, (the firm) tended to look at what I would bring to the table in their health law practice."
Brydolf says she was happy at Legacy, found the working conditions excellent, and considered it "a collegial place," where employees were influenced by the organization’s mission. Also, working in-house, there is no pressure for billable hours. But working in a firm provides greater diversity of issues and clients, and more latitude, she adds.
"Law firm practice has changed so dramatically in the last 20 years," says Brydolf. "People move between firms more frequently than they used to. Individuals in firms have adjusted to that. It’s important that the fits work for the firms and individuals to make it."
Aaron Courtney of Perkins Coie took a more typical route: leaving for a time to teach. He recently rejoined Perkins Coie after serving for three years as an adjunct professor and staff attorney at the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center at Lewis & Clark’s law school. He previously had worked in Perkins Coie’s environmental practices group from 1998-2000, as well as at a couple of Portland firms earlier.
"I wanted to try something new with my legal experience, which was to teach and do some litigation on the part of public interest groups," Courtney explains. "I enjoyed it very much. Ultimately, though, the full-time litigation experienced at the clinic was not for me." Part of his job at the college was to raise money to support the program, and, he adds, "As with all non-profit work, the bleak economy had made raising money difficult and added an extra layer of stress and uncertainty to the job."
Perkins Coie "was very supportive when I left and when I came back," says Courtney. Seeing environmental practice from both sides "kind of rounded out my experience in a good way." While at Lewis & Clark, he was able to relate to the viewpoint of the business community, which he had represented at the firm. Now he has been able to market to Perkins Coie’s clients both his experience in federal court while at the school, as well as his understanding of "an awareness of what’s going to draw the ire of the environmental community. The threat of a citizens suit is always in the back of the mind" of businesses, and they want to "avoid being at odds."
Another Perkins Coie attorney, Jeanette L. Thomas, has come back to the firm after spending almost four years at Stoel Rives. Born in Oregon, Thomas went to college and law school in New York City, where she first practiced bankruptcy law in some very large law firms. In 1997, she returned to the Beaver State to be near family, and joined Perkins Coie, where she practiced for two years.
She became concerned that there was not enough work to sustain her practice specialty. "So I looked to move to a firm with a larger base," Thomas says. She joined Stoel Rives. "It worked out pretty much as I had hoped. I did a lot of general corporate work. I really did get a much broader base of experience, and worked with fantastic clients and cases."
Then Thomas married a year ago. With hopes of raising a family, she decided to return to Perkins Coie last July. She had left amicably, and the firm had invited her to return. She say she was attracted to its "history of flexible work schedules," which fit in with her new outlook of reducing hours. She found she picked up where she left off, and is content. "This has better opportunities for where I want to go in the future."
Craig G. Russillo’s year and a half away from Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt also was what he terms "a lifestyle decision." He joined Schwabe right after law school. "I had gone straight through" college and law school without a break, and was working "a lot of hours at Schwabe." After three and half years there, he had the opportunity to take a two-year contract position as a national government lawyer for a state in the republic of Palau, a former U.S. trust situated on a group of Pacific islands.
Russillo says the country counts at most 20,000 citizens, but commands beautiful scenery. "I’m really glad I went. It was a really good life decision." If he had not taken a break, he thinks he would have burned out at the firm. In Palau, his work was similar to that of a general counsel position. He represented all government agencies, which got complicated under the "layers and layers of government" there.
Although he appreciated the experience, Russillo says the practice of law there "was not all I expected it to be," and at the 18-month point, he came back to the states, where Schwabe offered him a job again, in its commercial litigation department.
The firm was "very fair," he says. "A few folks at Schwabe have gone off and done something else" for a time, and the firm doesn’t resent it. Russillo says he never would have left to go to a competing firm: Schwabe "knew this was a lifestyle decision, not a work decision. They’re understanding."
He thinks firms such as his are realizing more and more that quality of life counts, and because of that, they end up with "a better lawyer, a better person."
Long, the managing partner of Schwabe Williamson, says there are practical reasons for staying on good terms when a firm member decides to try something else for a time. "Portland is a small town," he says, "and there’s no upside in treating someone who leaves other than with respect. Circumstances could change, and you don’t want to burn a bridge. (A departing lawyer) could end up as general counsel with one of your best clients. ... Regardless of the circumstances, it doesn’t make sense to needlessly make enemies."
The financial cost and time associated with recruiting and training new people are another reason why it makes sense to leave the door open, Long adds. "When you lose a lawyer that you want to keep, I don’t know the exact statistics, but the cost is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars." If a lawyer leaves to go to a competing firm, it "can feel like a kick in the gut," but even then, Schwabe Williamson does not "unthinkingly" bar their return, Long says. Some have come back, and "I do think it’s flattering in a way" when they realize what they missed from before and want to return.
Like other firms, Schwabe has reaped rewards when former members return with new experiences acquired while they were gone. Long says two lawyers left to found a dot-com business, then returned when the economy went sour. "Both learned a lot, and can be more effective and empathetic when dealing with entrepreneurs," he says. "I do think that time away gave them good perspective."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins, a Portland-area freelance writer, is a frequent Bulletin contributor.
© 2004 Cliff Collins