Large firms, more than we care to know, have made news in the last couple of years by "going under," i.e., defunct! Firms such as Howrey and Heller Erhman became the targets of personnel raids. Very good lawyers from these, and similar, law firms departed and joined other major, national law firms. Today’s WSJ comments on the current state of affairs for some of AmLaw 100 law firms.
Some folks are asking whether your new lateral partner have any unwanted baggage? In some instances, the new firm accepted partners from the old firm with the understanding that the lawyer would bring over clients from the old firm as well as his "unfinished business." This provides for immediate billing .. and therefore an opportunity to acquire great talent at a very low or zero cost.
These firms, and others, have gone into bankruptcy to collect funds to pay the firms’ creditors. In a law firm, the major assets "walk out the door every evening. Computers, furniture and real estate are of minimum value, if any, in a law firm. Accounts receivable are a major asset, though often difficult to collect from clients when they know there will be little serious effort to collect.
But, when the partners from the old, now defunct, law firm went, they generally took "their" book of business with them … and the "unfinished business" of the clients that went with them. One argument is that clients have a right to seek their own choice of lawyer. And the other argument is that the partner and new law firm benefited, resulting in a profit to the new firm that truly belongs to the old firm.
This battle will be fought for years, I suspect. But, the reality of our world is that anyone can sue anyone else, even if wrong. In the meantime, the largest pool of cash available to the trustee in bankruptcy for the defunct firms is the new firm and, perhaps, the lawyers, individually, from the old firm. Whether legitimate or not, new firms have been economically compelled to settle many of such claims in order to go on with the new firm business.
The new firms thought they were getting a steal! Maybe. But, I’m reminded of the old say that "…if it looks too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true." There is a cost to everything, even a very attractive, new lateral partner with great talent and a great book of business.