Industry Resources

DC Market Update: Strong Demand for Litigation, Transactional, and Regulatory Attorneys

After more than 200 years with New York as its only US office, Cravath announced in June that it will open in Washington, DC this fall. Given that Cravath has long resisted the Biglaw office expansion trend, its change in strategy is notable. Presiding Partner Faiza Saeed explained that the firm’s “clients face an increasingly complex and active regulatory environment.” Cravath’s move demonstrates an understanding that a strong DC presence is more valuable than ever — and not just for traditional regulatory counseling practices.

Cravath is not alone in reaching this conclusion. With increasing client demand in the face of an anticipated wave of enforcement actions, firms are recognizing the need to bolster their ranks in the nation’s capital, even if they aren’t new to the region. We at Lateral Link are working on numerous searches for firms opening or expanding their DC offices. Clients are acutely aware that DC is where the key regulatory decision-makers sit, and that local credibility in the unique DC market is essential.

The state of the lateral market

So what does this mean for the lateral market? In short, opportunity. We count more than 500 lateral moves in DC so far this year, and firms continue to hire at a strong pace. We have hundreds of openings for litigation, transactional, and regulatory attorneys.

Litigators are in the greatest demand, with thriving practices hiring at every level from associates to partners. Regulatory-related litigation groups — such as antitrust, white collar, and enforcement defense — are especially healthy. Firms are seeking talent in both the private and public sectors. Lateral candidates looking to switch firms are well-positioned, especially associates with two-to-five years’ experience and partners with at least $1 million in portable business. High-profile government officials are also coveted, as Cravath’s announcement illustrated: in tandem with the new office opening, Cravath hired three partners with high-level FDIC and SEC experience, including former FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams, former SEC Commissioner and Acting Chairman Elad Roisman, and former Associate Director of Enforcement for SEC Jennifer Leete.

On the corporate side, hiring has retreated somewhat from last year’s blistering pace, but opportunities still abound. Private equity, M&A, capital markets, and securities associates will have a plethora of options to consider, with two-to-five years’ experience again being the sweet spot. We are also filling a number of EC/VC and finance openings. For many candidates, DC might not immediately spring to mind as a top transactional hub, but this market has some real advantages for corporate associates. DC corporate teams tend to be smaller than in New York, and associates have the latitude to work across a wider variety of deals. Associates seeking a more generalist practice, plus expanded opportunities for client contact at an early stage, might want to consider a move to DC.

Naturally, much of the regulatory-related work in DC is tied to litigation and investigations. However, we also have active searches with many of the more traditional regulatory counseling practices. Banking, healthcare, energy, environment, and healthcare practices among others are seeking new talent at both junior and senior levels.

Is recession a concern?

Whether and when the economy might enter a recession is a matter of intense debate, and I’m not here to make macroeconomic predictions. But it’s worth addressing the recession scenario, as it will certainly be on some candidates’ minds. First, DC offices have continued to hire in the face of growing recession talk — if there is going to be a recession-induced hiring slowdown, it hasn’t happened yet. Second, DC law firms historically have been relatively resilient in recession periods.

Because the federal government continues, recession or not, government-related legal work continues. DC firms tend to have relatively diversified practices, which is also helpful: litigation, regulatory, and corporate practices each comprise material revenue streams for the larger DC firms. Few DC offices are excessively dependent on transactional work, the area that often takes the biggest hit in a recession. Historically, DC firms tend to be better positioned to weather economic storms than many of their peers in other markets.

A remarkable range of opportunities

The appeal of DC for a practice like antitrust needs no explanation. But it’s important to realize that the vibrant legal market here encompasses a remarkably broad range of practice areas, even some that are not tightly connected to the federal government. What is particularly striking about the current moment is that firms are hiring in virtually every practice area. At Lateral Link, we have worked with many attorneys to leverage the strong market demand to achieve their goals, whether that entails ascending the ladder to a more highly regarded firm, increasing their compensation, or both. If you are based in DC (or are open to moving here) and you are interested in taking your practice to the next level, please contact me to learn more.