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Why BigLaw Is Playing Hardball With Departing Attorneys

Michele Gorman LAW360.COM

Cleary's recent decision to fire four partners who were reportedly planning to leave for another firm created an outcry in the legal industry and left many scratching their heads, but recruiters view the unconventional move and similar actions by other law firms as anomalies rather than a sign of what's to come.

The quartet, led by veteran mergers and acquisitions attorney Ethan Klingsberg, were terminated by Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP in October. On Oct. 25, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP announced that it had hired the team in its New York office.

A source familiar with the situation told Law360 the terminations at Cleary were for breach of duty to the firm.

While firing departing attorneys or holding them to long notice periods is one way to deter laterals from leaving, it's not the best way, according to experts. They suggested increasing compensation or adopting flexible work options instead.

"I don't think any firm out there, Cleary or otherwise, wants to deter people from their firm or create a negative impression of the firm," said Alyson Galusha, senior director of the national partner group for Special Counsel's Parker + Lynch Legal.

A firm's reaction to exiting attorneys often depends on factors including its culture and history of departures, as well as the dynamics of a group of attorneys, certain practice areas and offices, Batz said.

Most attorneys and firm leaders typically aren't trying to be difficult or create negative experiences around these situations because they don't want to attract negative attention, he added.

"I tend to find that the firms that are losing their partners, their heart is not to be a jerk to the departing attorney," Batz said. "[Firms] really want to be below the radar. They want to be professional."

Jeffrey Lowe, managing partner of Major Lindsey & Africa LLC's office in Washington, D.C., agreed.

"At the end of the day, our experience in 95% of cases is that things go very smoothly," he said. "I think we will continue to see in the vast majority of cases that partners will leave and firms will understand and just let them go."

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