Smaller Firms More Reliant on Pull of Single Attorney
By AMANDA BRONSTAD
In the world of onetime lawyer and bestselling author John Grisham, the Rainmaker is a brash kid with an eye for truth who lands the big client for his down-and-out boss.
In the real world, the rainmaker an attorney with the clout and reputation to lure large amounts of business is more likely to be a middle aged guy with an eye for the big case and the track record to bring in scads of business.
All of L.A.’s firms have one lawyer sometimes more whose practice is vitally important to the firm’s ongoing financial success, whether it’s a big downtown practice or a sole proprietorship on Ventura Boulevard.
These days, however, the individual rainmaker has faded in importance at the large firms. L.A.’s biggest law firms, many of which have been around for the better part of a century, have become institutions whose broader reputations take the place of name partners (many long since gone) in drawing business.
At the same time, the importance of the rainmaker to smaller, upstart firms has increased.
Warren Christopher, former secretary of state and eminence grise of L.A. law, may be an attraction at O’Melveny & Myers, but his role in bringing big-dollar business is less important to the firm than Skip Brittenham’s draw to boutique entertainment firm Ziffren Brittenham Branca & Fischer.
It’s a change that’s illustrated by this year’s list of 25 top rainmakers, about half of whom are partners at their own boutiques.
Several factors have contributed to the shift: The desire of corporations to select outside counsel based on an individual lawyer’s, rather than a firm’s, reputation; the desire of many rainmakers to take a greater share of the income they generate; and the greater freedom partners find in firms that have not become institutions.
“When it comes to a really critical case, they don’t shop for a firm. They shop for an individual,” said Michael Dwyer, corporate counsel at NMB Technologies Corp. in Chatsworth and president of the American Corporate Counsel Association’s Southern California chapter.
When the emphasis is on getting the upper hand in a transaction, a lawyer’s track record speaks more loudly than firm history.
“If you go back 20 years, there was more of a tendency among corporations to look to a few firms to deal with their matters,” said Hayward Fisk, vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of El Segundo-based Computer Sciences Corp. “Nowadays, because business has become more complex, and more geographically dispersed, and because the in-house general counsels have become more astute in legal services, their choices are much broader.”
Litigator Tom Nolan, a partner at Howrey Simon Arnold & White LLP’s L.A. office, can attest to that. In his last three interviews with potential clients, he was asked to provide names of the defense attorneys he had gone up against and what trials he had done. While the 480-lawyer firm has tried to market itself as the “largest trial boutique in the world” by specializing only in litigation, the law firm’s marketing won’t sell services to the client, he said.
Practice makes perfect
Experience is what clients are looking for.
“People who try more cases get higher visibility and probably that goes to their benefit for rainmaking purposes,” said litigator Patricia Glaser, partner at Christensen Miller Fink Jacobs Glaser Weil & Shapiro LLP. “I try three to four cases a year. With a firm of 500 you won’t find anybody who does that. The longer between trials, the less you try cases. And by the time you’re a 35-year lawyer, you become gun shy.”
There’s also a bottom line issue. While rainmakers at smaller firms command a greater portion of firm profits, they often cost less because their overhead is far lower.
“There’s pressure on controlling costs,” Dwyer said. “If you had a choice to go to a large firm that normally handles litigation but will charge you $300,000, or go to the genius attorney you know who could knock it out in $100,000 worth of fees, that could be a consideration.”
Where the institutions have an advantage is in large corporate transactions. Fisk said that when CSC was threatened with a hostile take-over a few years ago, it turned to Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP lawyers Andrew Bogen and Wayne Smith because of their “depth and breadth of capability.” “These are first-rate firms, and you’ll get quality services generally speaking,” Fisk said.
In the law business, just as in other services, the clients follow the talent.
Rainmakers have more choices of where they can hang their shingle, and as a result are more willing to jump ship taking their clients with them. That includes starting their own firms.
For younger attorneys with early successes (some of which may amount to just luck in having the high-profile client or case), there’s an incentive to move out of a time-consuming partnership track and start their own firm right away.
Others just aren’t fit for the institutional setting of a large law firm. “It’s just the personality of the lawyers,” said Bruce Jeffer of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro LLP. “Some lawyers thrive in an institutional setting because of the support and resources. Some are more individualistic and don’t like those settings.”