I can relate to the Russian general defecting during the height of the Cold War," says a partner at one of Manhattan's biggest law firms. "Everyone knows which partners are likely candidates to leave the firm, and they watch you closer than the KGB, especially if you have a portable practice. They look at it as their money you're taking with you when you leave." He recalls how he was approached by his new firm after the legal press reported that he'd won a large chunk of business -- a big securities offering by a Fortune 500 company. Over several weeks, the defecting partner met with key lawyers from the suitor firm during a series of clandestine lunches at different SoHo bistros -- the kinds of places more often patronized by German models, disinherited counts, and hipster tourists than by Wall Street lawyers. Negotiations about compensation took place in the lobby bar of the Peninsula Hotel, the preliminary agreement sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin. "It was a little cloak-and-dagger," he says, laughing. "We chose places where I was unlikely to run into anyone from my old firm. If anyone had found out before a deal was struck, it would have been worse than awkward. It would have been war."
They're wearing combat boots at the white-shoe law firms these days. Only ten years ago, news of a partner's leaving his longtime firm had the shock value of an archbishop's joining the rabbinate. People once hitched themselves to a firm for better or for worse. Today, big law is a fast and dirty profession, with impulsive Vegas-style firm-to-firm nuptials, rancorous partner divorces, and he-who-leaves-with-the-most-clients-wins game plans. A young partner at one big Manhattan firm tells of being threatened with bodily harm by an older partner when he tried to deal with a big client directly. "He was joking, but not really," says the more junior esquire. "He made me swear that I would never meet with the client unless he was in the room." A senior partner who recently left his longtime firm says the aggressive maneuvers pulled by his younger colleagues made him feel like grizzled Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea, dragging his marlin to shore: "You win a big client, and you can't even finish one deal before other people are trying to tear a chunk off for themselves."
Whatever happened to firm loyalty? The institutional pride that made these firms as prestigious as the Ivy League schools where they recruited? Whither the eminent consiglieri, the trusted advisers who had the ears of corporate titans and who for generations enjoyed a sense of leisurely superiority to their banking and business clients who spent their time chasing after the bucks?
"We made a Faustian pact," says another partner. "In the eighties, business was so good that the partners got rich beyond their wildest dreams. The firms did anything to accommodate the flow of business -- hired associates that they had to fire later, set aside traditions. We got used to big profits. As a result, we compromised our dignity and respect."
"The day of the firm as family has passed," admits Francis Morison, senior partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell. "As is the case with sports teams and Fortune 500 corporations, lawyers are now free agents."
The most recent high-profile partner defections include Dennis Block, who left Weil, Gotshal & Manges for Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft last July, and Rigdon Boykin, the head of Chadbourne & Parke's Hong Kong office and the heart of its international project-finance practice, who went over to O'Melveney & Myers in October.
Block and Boykin were just following the examples of lawyers like John Kirby Jr. -- whose jump from Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon to Latham & Watkins in 1995, while he was still the head of the firm's executive committee, was widely regarded as the bullet that slayed Mudge Rose -- and litigator David Boies, who quit Cravath (the firm nobody ever leaves) in 1997 to hang out his own shingle in Washington, D.C.
And those are just the marquee names. Hundreds of young rainmakers are now playing musical firms. Flip backward through the 1999 calendar: There are the five Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker litigation partners who skipped over to Proskauer Rose in May; an intellectual-property partner at Fish & Richardson who swam over to Rogers & Wells one month before; and the three partners from Anderson, Kill & Olick who hightailed it to Davis & Gilbert in March. Then there's Ellen Werther, the Liz Taylor of law partnerships: Since 1993, she has been attached to at least three firms, including Coudert Brothers; Akin, Gump, Straus, Hauer & Feld; and Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy (which she left this year). Major defections in 1998 include the four partners from Milbank, who jumped to the New York office of U.K.-based Freshfields last September. A conga line of three partners, nine associates, four secretaries, and a paralegal at White & Case shuffled off to Linklaters & Paines, another English firm, last May.