Keith Wetmore, who served as chair of Morrison & Foerster between 2000 and 2012, is announcing a career change.
Wetmore, 61, will join the legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa, where he will focus primarily on helping law partners change firms. His last day at MoFo as chair emeritus will be Dec. 31, he told Big Law Business in an interview. He will join MLA in San Francisco shortly after.
“It’s actually been something of an escape fantasy for me for years,” he said of legal recruiting. “I love talking to people about their careers and I love helping partners succeed.”
Legal recruiting for large law firms can be a highly lucrative business. Placement firms such as MLA, Mestel & Co., and Lippman Jungers focus on moving partners. These firms often staff former practicing lawyers who can out-earn the partners they are moving. Salaries vary drastically because compensation is determined largely on commission, but several recruiters in the field said that top performers can earn anywhere between $1 and $6 million. Law firms often pay recruiters 25 percent of the annual compensation of the partner they place.
In May, Richard Hsu, formerly an intellectual property practice leader at Shearman & Sterling, also joined MLA in San Francisco. The firm also staffs a number of former Big Law executives and lawyers including Jane Roberts, the wife of chief justice John G. Roberts, Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court. She was previously executive partner for talent development at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.
Wetmore said he was not making the leap for financial reasons.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have spent 35 years in a career that is, by most standards, quite lucrative,” said Wetmore. “I’m not doing this because I need to put food on the table. I’m doing this because I enjoy seeing logical deals done in the lateral partner market.”
MoFo, which staffed 956 lawyers as of 2016 and grossed $950 million, averages $1.4 million profit per partner, according to The American Lawyer. The firm is currently helmed by New York-based Larren Nashelsky, a bankruptcy lawyer.
Nashelsky sent an internal memo at MoFo Nov. 1 wishing Wetmore well, saying that he wrote “with mixed emotions” as Wetmore exits after 35 years with the firm. Nashelsky said that “as the first openly gay leader of a major law firm, Keith was a pioneer in promoting diversity, opening doors not just at MoFo but across our profession.”
While with the firm, Wetmore was personally involved in hiring more than 100 partners from other law firms. According to news reports, this included the firm’s 2011 hiring of Michael O’Donnell, a longtime corporate partner at Wilson Sonsini who joined MoFo to head up its corporate life sciences practice, as well as the head of Herbert Smith’s U.S. capital markets practice in Asia and Hong Kong the same year.
“I’ve had some very close working relationships with some recruiters over the years, where they have helped me get deals done,” he said. “I find the role of a good recruiter can help both sides appreciate their strengths and weaknesses.”
However, law partners complain how recruiters exploit weakness.
When the now-defunct New York law firm Dewey & LeBouef collapsed in 2012, partners blamed the downward spiral, in part, to recruiters who latched onto media reports of the firm’s financial woes and called into the firm to shake loose its most important assets.
Such a dynamic places Wetmore in a delicate position: when the phone rings from a partner who wants to leave MoFo, will Wetmore pick up?
“I think it will be quite a while before I would be moving someone out of MoFo just for historical allegiance purposes,” said Wetmore.
But he didn’t leave the idea entirely off the table. And he won’t have any special allegiance to MoFo in placing more partners there than other firms, he said.
“If they choose to go another direction and if someone is upset by that, including my old firm, I’m sorry, but that’s just the way the world works,” he said. “Life is too short at this point in my career to advise someone to go to MoFo if it isn’t the right firm.”
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