Updated 5:00 p.m.
A panel of three Washington law firms’ managing partners offered a chilly review of the district’s legal climate for the coming year during The National Law Journal’s Managing Partners Breakfast.
The panel, moderated by NLJ and Legal Times Editor-in-Chief David Brown, discussed a range of topics, from what they look for in lateral hires to what firms can do to improve their relationships with clients.
Alice Fisher, managing partner of Latham & Watkins’ D.C. office, said she was cautiously optimistic about the coming year. “We have seen a range of demand for legal services and Washington continues to be a center of activity for our clients,” Fisher said. “The markets have been choppy and we continue to watch that.”
But Thomas Mills, managing partner of Winston & Strawn’s Washington office, was less optimistic, despite what he called “a very good year for us.” He pointed to Congress’ infighting over raising the debt ceiling as one factor undermining clients’ confidence.
Baker & McKenzie Washington managing partner, Elizabeth Stern, said that clients have become impatient with what she calls the taxi driver approach by some firms.
“The meter is running, but the taxi driver doesn’t really care where you’re going,” Stern said. “It’s about getting your fare.”
Instead, Stern said, firms should work cooperatively with clients to help them achieve their goals. This yields better client-firm relationships and strengthens everyone’s business, she said.
In today’s harsh legal climate, Fisher said, a lot of partners are testing the idea of lateral moves. But Mills took a harsh view of lateral hires who are not sincere about a commitment to a new firm.
“You have to be very, very cautious,” Mills said.
He said that he shows serious interest in about one out of 10 e-mails that he reads from headhunters and that most of Winston’s laterals come recommended by partners within the firm.
“If somebody is looking,” Mills said, “I’m almost certainly not interested.”