Is 2016 the Year of the Litigation Boutique?

We just finished January and already there have been three major announcements of large groups of lawyers splintering off the BigLaw mothership to launch their own boutiques.

First, eleven lawyers decamped from Arent Fox in California to form Larson O’Brien. Then, two lawyers departed Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison to start Wilkinson Walsh & Eskovits. And on Friday, news surfaced that 22 partners are set to leave Schiff Hardin to form Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila.

Small firms offer lawyers an opportunity to build their book of business, uninhibited by the potential client conflicts of a large firm, but there’s also more pressure to bring in continuous work to keep the lights on.

Recently, legal observers have taken note that in the normally lateral-happy time of January, there seems to have been more big firm-to-boutique movement than in previous years.

One BLB source recently reacted to the Schiff Hardin exodus:

Canary in the bird cage? Have you noticed a marked trend in viable, profitable, groups departing large or very large firms to form their own firms? A little research to verify could (reveal) certain vulnerabilities of AmLaw 200 firms stemming from the inherent tension between the need of these firms to grow and rationalize and the human dynamics/emotional needs of the partners who comprise them.

Jackie Knight, a recruiter with Major, Lindsey & Africa, explained that the moves are motivated by personal and business reasons, but noted the flip-side:

Many partners do remain in larger firms and do not make the leap, because the thought of managing the day-to day administration aspects of firm may be daunting. Also, cross-selling opportunities and brand of a larger firm may lead to business opportunities at a larger firm that may not exist at a smaller firm.

So what does the remainder of 2016 look like? Is this the beginning of a wave that could eat into Big Law profits?

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