In 2020, These Big Firms Have Seen the Most Partner Exits

Kirkland & Ellis, Boies Schiller Flexner, Holland & Knight and Akerman saw an uptick in partner departures this year.

Kirkland & Ellis saw more partner departures in the first eight months of 2020 than any other large firm. But unlike in recent years, when a high volume of lateral hires balanced out that movement, the firm experienced a net loss in the lateral market in 2020.

Boies Schiller Flexner, Holland & Knight and Akerman, which haven’t been plagued by mass departures in previous years, were also among the firms that saw the most partner exits in 2020.

That’s according to an analysis of lateral partner movement data from legal consulting firm Decipher, covering the period of Jan. 1, 2020, through Aug. 31, 2020. The Decipher data included partner exits at Am Law 200 firms and some midsize firms, and only counted partner- to-partner lateral moves, excluding those that moved from government or in-house roles into partnership at their new firm. Overall, the figures showed more of what we have come to expect from 2020: anomalies.

Among those anomalies was the situation at Kirkland. Due to its size, the firm normally leads the pack in both partners coming in and going out.

But in 2020, the firm saw 54 departures and only 18 U.S. lateral partner arrivals. When looking at the top firms for lateral hiring this year, Kirkland didn’t even crack the top 10.

“I was surprised to see Kirkland had lost that number of people,” Sabina Lippman of legal recruiting firm Lippman Jungers Bala said. “But they can afford to do that. They can go after people more aggressively than anyone else. They have a lot to play with, and they can take risks that many others can’t.”

Kirkland declined to comment on the record for this story.

Boies Schiller, which also declined to comment on this report, had 50 partner departures in the first eight months of the year, the second-highest number. The firm did add two bankruptcy partners in mid-July, reported, as well as a third partner during the period under consideration, but as none of them came from an existing partner position at a law firm, they were not included in the data.

The 50 departures at Boies make up a larger proportion of the partnership than the 54 partners who left Kirkland. The firm had 142 partners in 2019, according to ALM data, while Kirkland had 1,086.

While the pandemic hasn’t helped many firms in taking on laterals, Boies’ issues run a little deeper. As has previously reported, a change in leadership, conflicting narratives regarding partner departures and opportunistic poaching from firms like Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and Goodwin Procter made for a difficult year.

Holland & Knight, which in recent years has enjoyed a consistent presence among the top firms for incoming laterals, also saw itself in the top firms for departures in 2020, not a typical position for the Florida-founded firm.

And, according to the firm, the departures were due in no small part to the pandemic.

“The pandemic has caused a number of partners to alter their career plans,” Holland & Knight managing partner Steven Sonberg said in a statement.

“These involve various circumstances including the opening of boutique practices or moving to in-house legal positions or nonprofits. We have also had partners retire, relocate to cities where the firm does not maintain offices, and move to other law firms,” he said. “The firm continues to perform well, and we are poised to have another successful year. As a result, we expect a significant number of lateral partners will join the firm over the next several months.”

Some of those lateral moves have already happened. The firm snagged a 10-lawyer group from Reed Smith earlier this week, led by litigation partners Abe Colman and Travis Sabalewski. The firm also added Steven Sandretto, a veteran of the Latin American legal market, from Paul Hastings in late September.

Several other firms that had among the highest lateral partner exits, such as Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith (No. 3 in departures with 31), Greenberg Traurig (No. 8 with 25 departures) and Winston & Strawn (No. 9 with 22 departures), continued an existing trend of significant partner turnover.

Winston and Lewis Brisbois declined to comment for this story. Akerman did not respond to a request for comment.

Polsinelli, like Kirkland, typically has many departures and many hires to balance them out. But in 2020 the firm found itself with 30 departures and fewer than 23 additions.

“We were slow from a hiring perspective, intentionally, during the pandemic, for a lot of reasons,” Chase Simmons, CEO and chairman of Polsinelli, said in an interview. “Clients were not as interested in meeting new attorneys, it was hard to move around and meet people and we were more focused on transitioning our existing attorneys. [The departure count] doesn’t shock me, as we are not managing to a number, but rather to what the client needs.”

Simmons said the firm’s focus recently has been on organic growth, although he said the firm does have several pending announcements for partner hires.

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