Lateral Movement in 2012

Every year, Who’s Who Legal compiles its findings on 31 areas of law into this single publication. Using our independent research, we select the leading practitioners in each sector across the globe and with further analysis we are able to identify trends in the lateral movement of the world’s outstanding lawyers.


Lateral Moves

This year, we can once again see an increase in the number of lawyers who have moved firm since the publication of the previous edition a year ago. In part this should be off-set against the larger number of practitioners selected for inclusion in the book overall, but the trend is particularly marked this year. Furthermore, it is instructive that while the number of nominees who have ‘moved’ firms as the result of a law firm merger is higher than ever – a continuation of the elevated levels of merger activity that were visible last year – it has shrunk as a proportion of the number of moves overall.

The growth in the number of individual lateral moves demonstrates an even hotter market for individuals looking to move firms than 12 months ago, as lawyers in some practice areas find their services much in demand while in some cases others move to a firm that better suits their practices – and billing rates - in more straightened times.

Sector Hires

A closer examination of the activity across each practice area shows a widely varying amount of activity, depending on the sector in question. Commercial litigators are the least likely to have moved since last year’s edition, and trademark and white collar crime specialists have also been relatively static. Areas of corporate law such as M&A and tax have also seen low levels of movement overall, as has the competition legal market. However, there have been high levels of movement among trade and customs lawyers, and construction experts have also been switching firms with great frequency.

The single most active legal market area over the last year has been the mining sector. Twenty two of the 286 lawyers we identified as the world’s leading experts have moved firm since the last edition, a level of activity that graphically demonstrates the attractiveness of natural resources experts to law firms looking to expand into new markets through lateral recruitment. Our oil and gas chapter tells a similar story, with an even greater proportion of nominees making lateral moves in the last 12 months.

In the mining sector the activity has centred around the Australian and Canadian markets, the two most active countries for laterals overall after the US, and each has also been the focus of much merger activity in recent times.

Indeed, it is this high level of law firm merger activity that has propelled the mining sector to the top of this list – as the graph demonstrates no other practice area has been so affected by law firm combinations in recent months.

The success of this strategy is demonstrated by Norton Rose winning the Who’s Who Legal Mining Law Firm of the Year award for the first time in this edition, due in no small part to its merger with Macleod Dixon in 2011. The firm now sees 14 of its practitioners are listed in this sector, 10 of whom joined in the merger. Following Norton Rose’s earlier combinations with Deneys Reitz and Ogilvy Renault, this combination added 27 practitioners in seven offices overall and extended the new firm’s global reach to four new office locations including Almaty, Caracas, Bogota and Rio de Janeiro.

The combination between Mallesons Stephen Jaques and King & Wood was another merger to have an impact on the highest tier of the legal market. Both legacy firms were previously multiple winners of Who’s Who Legal Awards for Australia and China respectively, and the combined firm sees 63 of its lawyers listed in this book, 45 from Mallesons’ offices in Hong Kong, China, Australia and England joining 18 former King & Wood nominees from HK and China.

Australia is widely regarded as a gateway to business coming out of China, and it is by far the most active country in terms of law firm merger lateral movement, with 65 of the country’s leading practitioners moving firms in the last 12 months through the emergence of King & Wood Mallesons and Ashurst Australia.

Some of the leading practitioners in the world have also moved firms in recent months. Colin Long is the reigning Who’s Who Legal Regulatory Communications Lawyer of the Year, and he joined Bird & Bird – our Firm of the Year in this sector – as Of Counsel to its London office in May 2011.

Jeremy Shebson and Nicholas Hughes are each among the most highly regarded individuals worldwide in our aviation research, and both joined Holman Fenwick & Willan in a March 2011 move of the aviation practice from Barlow Lyde & Gilbert. HFW has had a particularly impressive year in terms of lateral recruitment, with Folkert Graafsma in Brussels significantly strengthening its trade and customs practice.

Some firms are expanding their geographical reach, with US firms particularly active: Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati opened a Brussels office in September through the recruitment of two of the competition sector’s leading lawyers in Michael Rosenthal and Götz Drauz, and Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft LLP did likewise with the hiring of Alec Burnside to manage its local practice. Other firms looked to further strengthen existing practices: Clifford Chance added the very highly rated Johan Ysewyn to its Brussels office in September.

In recent years private practitioners have been moving firm with a greater frequency than before, and the number of law firm mergers has also seen a similar increase. While the difficult economic conditions in which most practice has taken its toll on some, it is also true that joining with leading lawyers – and in some case whole firms – can offer a gateway into such lucrative markets that remain. With the current economic downturn lingering across the world the attractiveness of these active markets is unlikely to wane in the near future, and we can expect to see similarly high levels of movement on both fronts over the next 12 months.

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Nominees have been selected based upon comprehensive, independent survey work with both general counsel and private practice lawyers worldwide. Only specialists who have met independent international research criteria are listed.

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