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With Competition Fierce, Even Elite Law Firms Resort to the Unusual

Elizabeth Olson nytimes.com

America's law firms, even the most prominent, are mired in an era of noticeably modest growth and volatility in the industry, and 2017 promises to be no better.

Fierce competition is prompting firms to take unusual steps to bolster their profiles. Top firms are hiring groups of lawyers to expand specific practice areas, changing pay practices, jettisoning or demoting some partners and staff members and seeking ways to distinguish their brands to set them apart from competitors.

Beyond that, the top-drawer firms are increasingly jostling with one another to win lucrative legal work. It is getting tougher for firms to hang onto traditional portfolios of corporate business and avoid elbowing from rivals.

The traditional bonds of partnership, if not being undone, are at least being frayed by the rising numbers of partners leaving one big firm for another. Kirkland, for example, last fall brought aboard Paul D. Clement, a former United States solicitor general, and all 17 colleagues from the boutique appellate firm Bancroft P.L.L.C. The bold stroke gave Kirkland singular depth in a prestigious practice area, but may also have had unintended fallout.

In the past, recruiting a superstar to jump to a new firm was rare, and a few top-of-the-line firms still avoid such hires on grounds that they undercut the profession's image and damage morale. But unexpected moves like Mr. Clement's hiring are becoming a new normal for law firm viability as firms poach illustrious lawyers in a quest to raise their profiles, and revenue, according to those who study the legal industry.

Firm mergers are also expected to continue. To date most such mergers are among small and medium-size firms, but the combination in 2016 of the prestigious Arnold & Porter law firm, based in Washington, with the New York firm Kaye Scholer brought the prospect of consolidations more firmly into view.

"There will be more merger activity," predicted John Cashman, a vice president at Major, Lindsey & Africa, a legal recruiter. Such combinations are not a snap, he warned, because "every firm wants to be the acquirer."

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