Growth in Biglaw partnerships follows a cyclical pattern. Firms expand their partner ranks rapidly in some years and not at all in others. 2022 was a year for lateral expansion — hardly a surprise considering that client demand remained strong in most practices. The unique feature of this recent expansion wave is where firms grew: 2022 will be remembered for unprecedented hiring of lateral partners outside of the largest cities.
COVID and remote working have upended traditional assumptions about where a partner must be based in order to maintain a Biglaw book of business. The pandemic shuffled the location preferences of many professionals, including both lawyers and their clients. Partners who would rather live outside of the traditional business centers now feel emboldened to voice that preference, and many firms are prepared to accommodate.
Firms see new opportunities for business development in cities that traditionally wouldn’t have supported top Biglaw billing rates: the recent growth of the finance sector in Miami (at the expense of New York and Chicago) offers a case in point. Additionally, clients today are more tolerant of their lawyers being based in a different state: a partner who moves from the Bay Area to Austin will likely have no problem continuing to serve California clients. Another factor firms are considering is the many associates and counsels who are eager to move to secondary markets: where partners are prepared to anchor a new office (or expand an existing one), it typically helps a firm’s non-partner recruiting efforts.
Perhaps no secondary market has drawn as much attention in this period as Miami. The city has not been shy about branding itself as the hot new tech and finance hub. Distinguishing between hype and reality hasn’t always been easy, but with important Biglaw clients like Citadel moving their headquarters to South Florida, firms are rightfully taking notice. Among the firms that have opened Miami offices since COVID are Kirkland & Ellis, Winston & Strawn, King & Spalding, Sidley Austin, and Quinn Emanuel.
Salt Lake City is another market worth highlighting. Though it maintains a lower profile than Miami, Salt Lake has enjoyed a fast-growing, tech-driven economy, attracting both larger companies (Adobe, Ebay, Overstock, Qualtrics) and many startups. Kirkland & Ellis, Wilson Sonsini, and Foley & Lardner have all opened Utah offices since the pandemic.
Although secondary market expansion may have been the defining story of 2022, we expect this trend to continue in 2023. The window remains open to partners making a lateral move to a secondary city.
If you’re a partner considering such a move, should you take the plunge? Obviously, circumstances vary depending on your practice and your proposed destination. A recruiter who specializes in partner moves and knows the specific markets in question will be best placed to advise you. But speaking generally, here are a few reasons you may wish to jump to a secondary market:
Better lifestyle! Many secondary cities are attractive places to live. Interested in a warmer climate? Easy access to skiing? A lower cost of living? Chances are there’s a secondary market that would suit your lifestyle preferences.
Big fish, smaller office! Partners entering from larger cities often enjoy the best of both worlds. They can establish themselves immediately as a top expert in their new, smaller market by virtue of the high-profile matters they handled in the prior market. At the same time, they can bring their current clients with them. For more junior partners, a move to a less crowded market can also be a fast-track to internal leadership opportunities.
Billing rate flexibility! In some cases, it is increasingly possible to charge national billing rates in smaller cities as companies used to paying those rates move in. But as a general matter, smaller markets usually require firms to adopt a more flexible approach. The ability to offer more flexibility on rates can be of great help to partners looking to expand their client base outside the big cities.
Talent retention! Many associates and counsels want to be based in lower-cost cities with more affordable real estate. For partners, the ability to accommodate that desire means they can retain their talent group for longer. Instead of leaving to join a smaller firm in a secondary market, associates and counsels can achieve the same cost-of-living benefit while staying in Biglaw.
Strategy, strategy, and more strategy! In the current market, lateral partners moving to secondary locations are a key part of many firms’ strategic growth model. If you join a new firm under these circumstances, firm leadership will be especially invested in your success. As a lateral partner, you want to ensure your new firm is committed to integrating you into the firm’s platform, and it is always advantageous to lateral into a situation where the firm feels some extra pressure to make the move work. Coming in as an anchor partner for an office that is a focus of firm growth should set you up nicely.