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For Boomerang Laterals, There's No Place Like Home

Credit: Val Bochkov

Editor's note: A version of this story was published in December 2018 as "The Boomerang Effect: You Can Go Home Again."

Mariah McGrogan had been a labor and employment attorney with Reed Smith in Pittsburgh for two years when she left to join the employment firm Jackson Lewis in August 2016. She wanted to try out the employment law specialty model. Two years later, she was already back with Reed Smith, joining a host of lawyers returning like boomerangs to their prior firms in a heated lateral market.

McGrogan enjoyed her two years at Jackson Lewis and learned a great deal about employment issues and litigation. She liked working at a firm that specialized in employment law. But she had built strong mentoring relationships at Reed Smith and missed the lawyers, she says. So, when the firm had an opening for a labor and employment lawyer in its Pittsburgh office last year, McGrogan says “it tugged on my heartstrings.” She saw the job listing while on vacation in Mexico, contacted one of her mentors, and was very quickly hired back.

The phenomenon of attorneys leaving and eventually returning to their former firms is not exactly new. Lawyers have long been known to move in-house or take a government post for a few years and then go back home, so to speak. But now, especially in highly competitive markets with intense lateral movement, it is not unusual to see lawyers move from one law firm to another, only to promptly return.

Kent Zimmermann, a law firm consultant with Zeughauser Group, says that with the current lateral market inflamed by Am Law 200 firms opening branch offices all over the country, more lawyers will be enticed to move but in time will boomerang back. And in places like Texas, where the competition for talent has been intense, such activity could soar.

“The competitive environment to recruit is tighter in Texas than in many other geographic areas,” Zimmermann says. “And that may result in increased boomerang activity.”

You Can Go Home Again

Mariah McGrogan of Reed Smith.

McGrogan admits she was nervous to return to Reed Smith, but the transition was smooth. She sometimes has trouble discerning whether she was gone for a one-week vacation or two years at another firm. In part, she says, it’s because she is doing work for some of the same clients she worked for during her earlier stint at Reed Smith.

Some lawyers wait much longer than McGrogan to go home again. In February 2018, when the lateral market in Texas had gotten especially hot, Joe Wielebinski returned to Winstead as a partner in Dallas after spending 33 years at Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr—a firm founded by a group of former Winstead lawyers in 1985.

Wielebinski, a bankruptcy lawyer, says it made sense for him to return to Winstead because of the depth of the firm’s insolvency and financial institutions practices. He moved back with Walter Buchanan and Paul Seiler, who also boomeranged after 28 years at other firms. Wielebinski says multiple firms approached him prior to his move, but nothing sounded interesting or worth pursuing until Winstead reached out.

“They really rolled out the red carpet,” Wielebinski says. ”It was a very comfortable feeling, coming home.”

Winstead also lost some lawyers this year as the boomerang phenomenon took hold in Texas. Four energy litigators who had joined Winstead in 2011 returned to K&L Gates in March.

“There’s something to coming back,” says Lisa Smith, a principal with legal consultant Fairfax Associates in Washington, D.C. “You know people and are comfortable. You don’t have to prove yourself at every turn.”

Not all boomerangs move from law firm to law firm, of course. It’s common for lawyers to go into government service and then return to their former firm, Smith says. And lawyers frequently leave firms for in-house jobs or the bench and then return.

“It’s just the nature of the industry,” says Chris Batz, founder of the legal recruiting firm The Lion Group.

Everyone Benefits

When lawyers do return, they not only have insights that can benefit their firm, but they also value the firm that much more.

“I gained a much better appreciation of the positive aspects of being in a law firm,” says William “Chip” Cavanaugh Jr., a Munsch Hardt partner in Dallas who returned to the firm in 2002 after a stint as a principal in a private equity firm with a real estate focus.

Cavanaugh says that when his private equity firm closed, he considered jobs as the general counsel of a REIT or a real estate company, but he didn’t want to move his family from Dallas. Lawyers at Munsch Hardt were pressuring him hard to return to the firm, and he ultimately found it was the best move. He decided he wouldn’t work until 10 p.m. every night, a schedule he has been able to swing at Munsch Hardt because of its large team of real estate lawyers. Cavanaugh says he learned to appreciate one important aspect of working in private practice: control over his own destiny.

Some lawyers even try a few different positions before boomeranging to their former firms. In September, for example, M&A lawyer Christina Marshall returned to Haynes and Boone as a partner in Dallas after spending a few years as general counsel for a Dallas company and then managing her own small firm.

Marshall learned a lot about the client’s perspective while working in-house and also about firm management as an owner of her firm. But when Haynes and Boone asked her to consider returning, she jumped at the chance.

Austin Lee, a partner at Bracewell in Houston, was a fifth-year associate when he left the firm in 2014 to take an in-house position at Newfield Exploration Co. He returned to Bracewell a year later. He missed the “pace and timeline” of a firm, he says. So he started talking to Bracewell about a potential return, and the firm took him back.

But Lee was not Bracewell’s first boomerang. Shortly after joining the firm as chief talent officer in 2017, Jennifer Queen looked at hiring data and noticed that a large number of lawyers who left the firm later returned. In fact, since 2015, 14 lawyers have boomeranged back to Bracewell, she says.

According to Queen, the boomerang phenomenon is most common among associates, which she attributes to the millennial factor. Younger lawyers, now the industry’s largest demographic, are more open to changing jobs, she says.

While it’s somewhat unusual for a lawyer to return to a firm after decades, such as Wielebinski did, the moves sometimes come at speeds liable to result in whiplash. Richard Frye, an attorney who specializes in private equity work, practiced at Weil, Gotshal & Manges for 10 years before leaving for Winston & Strawn in March 2017. By December of 2018, Frye was back with Weil.

To Government and Back

Kim Koopersmith of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Lawyers who leave a firm for government service are often highly sought-after when they decide to return to firm practice. Kim Koopersmith, chair of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, says it’s a “wonderful thing” for a firm to have lawyers leave to take a job in government and then return.

“From our point of view, it’s a plus,” she says. “We are happy when people go forth and happy when people return.”

Smith, the Washington, D.C., consultant, says it’s long been a trend in the nation’s capital for lawyers to leave firms for government service and then return. The lawyers, she says, are often looking for a different work/life balance, or just a different experience.

Money can also play a part when lawyers return, Smith says, noting that a lawyer’s stock often goes way up after a stint in government or at another firm.

Robert Allen was an associate at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C., from 2011 through 2014, but left to become a prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. He enjoyed being a prosecutor, but he knew he would one day return to private practice.

In 2018, loaded with courtroom experience from prosecuting cases ranging from murder to securities fraud, Allen returned to Kirkland.

Allen says his prosecutorial experience benefits the firm. “One of the advantages—and this is really important—is that you get to see behind the scenes, the other side. You get to see how prosecutors think,” he says. He didn’t leave Kirkland because of anything negative and never considered going anywhere else.

Randy Wilson had the same thought when he rejoined trial firm Susman Godfrey as a partner Jan. 2, after serving as a state court judge in Houston for 15 years.

Wilson was one of the original partners in the firm, which was founded in 1980, and when he lost a re-election bid in 2018 in a Democratic sweep in Houston and decided to get back in the courtroom, it was a boomerang back to Susman Godfrey or nothing.

“I wanted to get back into trial work. I missed it, and if I was going to go back into trial work, where else would I go but Susman Godfrey? It is literally the best trial firm in the country,” he says, “And besides, it feels like home.”

Email: bjeffreys@alm.com