It might sting when valued attorneys walk out the door to join a rival. But it’s smart business to put on a good face—law firms may be welcoming them back at a later date.
Recent data from LinkedIn shows that 4.3% of job switches in 2021 were “boomerang hires,” up from less than 2% in 2010. And while the company did not present specific details on the legal industry, or even the wider “professional services” realm, several Am Law 100 firms have succeeded in bringing back a significant number of boomerangs in recent months.
Dechert has brought on four partners since last November who were previously associates at the firm, and months earlier it welcomed back a former partner who took a high-ranking job at the U.S. Department of Justice. In March alone, Nixon Peabody hired two partners and one associate who previously had time at the firm on their resumes, and the firm is onboarding several additional familiar faces in the coming weeks. At both firms, the rehires are scattered across practice groups and geographies.
“We have had boomerangs before,” said Nixon Peabody chief talent officer Stacie Collier. “But I think this frothy market has increased the number that we’re seeing.”
The lateral market, for both associates and partners, is busier than ever. And in some cases, that atmosphere of heightened mobility is prompting some lawyers to think fondly of their former professional homes.
“What we’re seeing with our recent boomerangs is they’re looking at present firms, comparing with the Nixon Peabody experience and concluding, ‘I liked that Nixon Peabody experience. I’d like to come back,’” said CEO and managing partner Steve Zubiago.
Dechert policy committee chair Andrew Levander, who also expects to be able to announce two additional boomerang hires soon, hears similar stories. “Either the place they went wasn’t the right platform, or others tell stories about people and cultural issues,” he said.
In an overheated market, it’s not entirely surprising that certain firms are eyeing their former lawyers when looking to fill holes or grow their capabilities.
“Firms are desperate for talent,” said Bob Brigham, a partner with Major, Lindsey & Africa. “Folks they already know, who know them, are a logical place to go.”
And for the returning lawyers, it’s easier to hit the ground running at a firm where they have some roots. Kevin Grant started as a summer associate at Nixon Peabody and left as a midlevel associate in 2010 for an opportunity at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius closer to family in New Jersey. He was made partner there before moving to DLA Piper in 2018. When he began weighing a return to Nixon Peabody, enticed by how his practice representing private equity funds and strategic buyers in middle-market buy-side deals slotted in, he was also happy to discover many familiar faces now in leadership roles.
“Moving an active practice to a new firm is difficult regardless, but when you can step in on day one and know who to call on different subject-matter expertise and get quick answers, that’s phenomenal,” he said.
While both Dechert and Nixon Peabody have welcomed back attorneys in the past, the recent volume is unique. “The phenomenon here is unusual,” Levander said, while noting that current CEO Henry Nassau returned from a general counsel role at a tech-focused venture capital firm. “I didn’t notice it immediately, and when I did, I was surprised.”
Still, these boomerang moves have been less common in the law firm world than in the wider economy. Michael Ellenhorn, founder and CEO of competitive intelligence firm Decipher, ran an analysis several years ago looking at a calendar year of lateral partner hires and found that significantly less than 1% qualified as boomerangs. And he’s skeptical that the number has budged substantially in the last several years.
“Even when you look at the comparative strength of the hiring market between 2018 and 2019 and 2021 and 2022 … it would be surprising to me if in the current market it was more than 1%,” he said. “Is it statistically significant for the market? No.”
A History of Success
That said, firms that have already demonstrated success in bringing back their alumni tend to stand out. Several recruiters on the West Coast pointed to Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati as a prime example. Since 2017, the firm has brought back 10 boomerang lateral partners, primarily in San Francisco and Palo Alto, with three in 2021.
Wilson Sonsini partner Richard Blake left for Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian at the start of 2013, facing doubts about how his old firm would weather the transition to second-generation leadership. He was also eyeing an opportunity to build a public-companies practice at the new firm.
But after Blake’s former Wilson Sonsini partner Rezwan Pavri, a capital markets specialist, returned to the firm in 2017 after almost three years at Goodwin Procter, he was being courted to return. “He said, ‘We need you back at Wilson Sonsini. You need to come home,’” Blake said.
Allison Spinner, head of Wilson Sonsini’s corporate group, emphasized that the firm “always considered the door open” for former attorneys.
“These are people that are valued in the marketplace,” she said. “In many cases, they really grew up in our firm, trained here, benefited from our entrepreneurial and collaborative culture, they’re attractive to other firms. We, in many cases, stay in touch.”
Blake found that the culture at Wilson Sonsini had actually improved in his absence. “The transitions happened, and it’s a more collaborative, cooperative, team-oriented place,” he said.
And he felt welcomed back with open arms. “Some of my close mentors may have said, ‘The prodigal son returns,’ but literally I’m talking about the guy who interviewed me to be a summer associate,” he said.
Brigham, the Major Lindsey recruiter, acknowledged that certain firms are better than others at staying open-minded when an attorney exits. “Some firms get offended when a partner or a senior associate leaves and aren’t worried about maintaining good relations,” he said.
But in the current tight talent market, where their familiarity often allows boomerangs to contribute even faster than fresh faces, it’s clearly shortsighted to bear grudges. Particularly if there’s a strategic opportunity.
“If there’s a hatchet to be buried, let’s bury the hatchet,” Blake said.