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Spring-back attorneys return to firm practice

June 17, 2015

While many corporate legal departments are expanding as matters are worked on internally, some in-house counsel are counter trend, opting to leave their posts to join law firms. Most had worked for a firm for at least a few years, often at the beginning of their careers, before moving to companies.

Call them the spring-back lawyers.

These attorneys have specialties in financial services, education and life sciences, just to name a few, according to Jacquelyn Knight, a partner at recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa. “Where firms have a niche area, they will be opportunistic and hire in-house lawyers with certain specialties.”

This month, for example, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP announced its hiring of investment management attorney Amy Doberman as a partner, as well as the addition of Mark Rotenberg, general counsel of Johns Hopkins University, as special counsel.

The bigger question is why in-house counsel would want to move back to a sector that often seems dominated by concerns about stagnant growth and business development.

The reasons are as varied as their practice areas. Some attorneys are interested in a new challenge while others are recruited by firms to grow a business. Others reevaluate law firm life after their corporate employers sell off assets. And some say the demands of working for a company with a multitude of internal clients often eclipse the pressures faced by law firm partners. Virtually all have spent some time working at firms.

Doberman, for her part, said that she was ready for a new challenge at this point in her career. “You can really learn a business by being an in-house lawyer. As a result, you have a lot to contribute.”

And Rotenberg, who had been a partner at Dorsey & Whitney LLP before working as general counsel at the University of Minnesota and then at Hopkins, decided to join the higher education group at Wilmer because he thought he could use his experience to advise “a wide range of academic institutions and the best place to do that is from a law firm that reaches across many universities.”

He’s not the only lawyer to move from academics to a firm. This month, Cooley LLP hired Katherine Lee Carey as special counsel in the higher education practice. She most recently had served as the general counsel and vice president for government affairs at West Coast University and American Career College in California.

Time for a change

Boston’s Choate Hall & Stewart LLP has hired Bob Licht, who was previously the chief corporation counsel at Biogen Inc., as a partner. After many years in-house, he said, he “wanted to do something different and take what I had learned and be hands-on with smaller clients.”

He originally thought of working as a chief legal officer at a smaller biotech company, but Choate Hall reached out to him because one of their life sciences lawyers was leaving and they were searching for someone with the background to build their corporate and transactional practice in the life sciences industry.

“When I got the first call, it was not what I was really thinking of, but I thought I may as well talk to them,” he said. “And every interaction exceeded my expectations.”

Linda Riefberg also was ready for something new. Now a partner at Cozen O’Connor, she worked at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP after graduating from law school and then joined the New York Stock Exchange, remaining after its regulatory and enforcement operations combined with those of the NASD to form FINRA.

In 2011, after some management changes, she decided it was time. While some of her colleagues moved to other in-house jobs, Riefberg wanted to return to a law firm.

“It can actually be more stressful working in-house than at a firm. When you’re in-house, there are a lot of internal clients. I didn’t want to move somewhere where I needed to figure out a new bureaucracy as well as the politics.”

She initially joined Fried Frank Shriver Harris & Jacobson LLP, but decided to move to Cozen.

Book of business

One of the biggest hurdles in-house counsel face is demonstrating a projected book of business to a potential new employer.

“A lot of firms will say you’re not a business developer, so you need to show you can develop business by coming up with a business plan or demonstrating your relationships,” Alisa Levin, a principal with the recruiting firm Greene-Levin-Snyder in New York, said.

Ed Dartley, a partner at Pepper Hamilton LLP who specializes in asset management, did just that. He had initially been seeking another in-house job. But the outside firm that he used spoke to him about creating a general counsel practice for hedge funds, many of which don’t have in-house counsel. That got him thinking, he said, and he developed a 15-page business plan on what he could offer. He then began talking to several firms before ultimately choosing Pepper Hamilton.

One consideration in creating a plan is how a firm’s billing rates can dovetail with business development. When Riefberg was considering leaving Fried Frank, some of her colleagues were opting for another large firm. “But that firm had billing rates of $1,000 an hour and it’s hard to build a business when you charge those rates,” Riefberg, a litigator, said.

She instead chose Cozen O’Connor, with slightly lower billing rates and where, as a result, bringing on clients wasn’t as formidable a challenge.

Taking risks

Firms of course don’t know how these in-house counsel will fit in and, more importantly, whether their projection of business will actually occur.

“The firms are taking risks, which sometimes pay off well, but sometimes not. But that’s certainly true in the hiring of lateral partners as well,” Levin said.

That’s where the all-important cultural fit can come into play.

Cozen’s composition, with a mix of long time partners and significant number of laterals, helped Riefberg feel at home. It’s a growing firm, she said, with a number of lateral hires. They’re building a firm and developing a culture together, she explained, which has smoothed her transition.

Riefberg, like others interviewed, also said they appreciate the challenges and rewards of building a business.

As Dartley said, “I liked the concept of building something and it’s tremendously rewarding to be back in private practice.”

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