Kirkland & Ellis Reaches the Top as it Focuses on Corporate Work

By: Claire Bushey

Kirkland & Ellis made its name on fearsome litigation. But now, after years of transformation, the firm has become the largest in the country powered by the billings of its corporate and bankruptcy lawyers.

Litigators who have left the Chicago-based firm say its power center has shifted toward lawyers in private equity and public company mergers and acquisitions. Litigation partners have seen their compensation cut, and their share of the firm's headcount has declined over the past decade. When Jeffrey Hammes ends his third three-year term as chairman in February, many expect another lawyer from the corporate side to succeed him.

The firm has a reputation for throwing money at lawyers until they agree to join, but Jon Lindsey, a managing partner in New York at recruiter Major Lindsey & Africa, says the reality is more complicated. They aren't bound by the lockstep compensation structure that prevails at Wall Street firms, and unlike many others they are willing to risk that a high-profile hire might not pan out. "They have a willingness to invest," Lindsey says. Most firms among the country's 100 largest "could pay someone $10 million, but not everyone is willing to do that."

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