GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Rapids’ law community has long been genteel and loyal, in the tradition of the late President Gerald R. Ford, who practiced here in the 1940s before departing for political life in Washington, D.C.
But over the past year or so, several dozen local lawyers have changed the names on their dance cards in an unprecedented personnel shuffle in the River City.
“The main firms in Grand Rapids — the ones based here — have not traditionally recruited attorneys from other law firms,” said Andy Kok, partner in charge of recruiting at Varnum Riddering Schmidt & Howlett. “For the most part, firms based here in Grand Rapids have just not gone after each other’s attorneys.”
Now the rules are changing, as several out-of-town law firms try to establish or beef up their presence in the Grand Rapids market.
“I think it’s a reflection mainly of the fact that Grand Rapids is growing, and the legal community is growing,” said Grand Rapids Bar Association President Paul Sorensen, of Warner Norcross & Judd. “This kind of thing has been going on for a long time in other, bigger cities.”
For example, Clark Hill, born of a merger in the Detroit area nearly 20 years ago, last year enticed 10 lawyers out of Law, Weathers & Richardson’s roster of about 40. Law Weathers partners had been divided over Clark Hill’s 2005 overture to merge, said Law Weathers President Kevin Krauss and Clark Hill Grand Rapids Managing Partner Ingrid Jensen.
“Detroit firms have been trying to get a foothold in Grand Rapids for years,” Krauss said. “The way they’ve done it in the past has been to try to come and see if they could take over a Grand Rapids firm. They have not met with great success. It’s tough. Grand Rapids is very parochial.”
Jensen spent 20 years at Law Weathers, but said she is convinced that Clark Hill is a good fit for her. “The movement here in town has never been seen, historically,” Jensen said. “In today’s market, you have to have your fingers in all areas of the law and have access to attorneys all across the state. For me, it’s all about client services and providing excellent, timely services for my clients’ needs.”
Clark Hill has 170 lawyers in Detroit, Birmingham, Lansing and Chicago, with 16 in Grand Rapids, Jensen said. She said the firm developed plans to expand regionally before the economy tanked in Detroit.
“The non-Grand Rapids-based firms are becoming more aggressive in trying to attract lawyers from other Grand Rapids firms,” Sorensen said. “I think they see that Grand Rapids is pretty vibrant compared to other parts of Michigan, economically, so they want to get a firm foundation for their Grand Rapids offices. One of the best ways to do that is to attract lawyers who’ve been around for awhile.”
Still, Sorensen said, he doesn’t expect mass defections in Grand Rapids. Some Detroit firms have been anchored in Grand Rapids for as many as 20 years, he noted, and many of them feature enough West Michigan talent that they’re almost viewed as local firms. But Kok said those firms are being drawn out of complacency.
“When Barnes & Thornburg mushroomed here two or three years ago, with some Warner attorneys and recently some Miller Johnson attorneys going to them, it kind of opened the eyes of those Detroit firms here in Grand Rapids,” Kok said. “They saw there is the ability to get some movement among partners at big Grand Rapids firms. I would guess a lot of these attorneys in the large Grand Rapids firms have all gotten calls.”
Barnes & Thornburg, a 475-attorney firm headquartered in Indianapolis, boasted in its 2006 annual report that its new Grand Rapids office had nabbed former partners in local firms “considered large by local standards,” as managing partner Tracy Larsen wrote. Announced just a week ago was the move of two Miller Johnson partners, Robert R. Stead and Jeffrey B. Lawson, to Barnes & Thornburg’s business department. Stead led Miller Johnson’s mergers and acquisitions group and was a member of the firm’s management committee.
“Many things attracted us to B&T, but two really stick out in my mind,” Stead said in a press release. “The first is the depth of capabilities that a firm of nearly 475 professionals can provide. The second is the number of talented attorneys who left prominent positions at other firms to make up the Grand Rapids office of B&T.”
Larsen was a partner and had 20 years in at Warner Norcross when he decided to affiliate with a larger firm. He said he approached Barnes & Thornburg, one of the country’s 100 largest firms, to establish a Grand Rapids office. That office now has about 20 lawyers, and Larsen makes no bones about seeking the best and brightest local talent for his staff.
“Of the 20 I have currently on site in Grand Rapids, 19 have come from the other large firms in town,” Larsen said. “Our requirements in people are a little bit different. We’re looking at the cream of the crop. Virtually all our partners have run their respective practice areas at their former firms. We’re really especially honed in on a person at the top of their practice.”
Larsen said he realizes that cherry-picking at local firms runs against tradition. “Oh, sure, I think that there is always a level of anger and resentment,” Larsen said. “None of it is personal, and I have friends at all the big firms here. To me, it’s a frustration about change, and we live in a changing market.”
Some of those Detroit-area firms that opened in Grand Rapids in the 1980s are expanding now, as well.
For example, Dickinson Wright, the 220-strong law firm of former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer, moved into Grand Rapids in 1989, said managing member Daniel Gosch. But in the past eight months, the firm’s Grand Rapids roster has grown by about 50 percent, Gosch said, with seven new hires bringing the staff to 20. Four of those came out of Varnum during the latter half of 2006.
“Some of our most recent persons to join us have come to this side of the state from the other side of state,” Gosch pointed out. “We look for people to service particular client needs and law firm needs.”
Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone was one of the earliest immigrants from Detroit, opening a Grand Rapids office in 1983. Resident Director Rick Gaffin, also one of the firm’s five managing partners, said the out-of-towners have “changed the community a little bit,” but the more recent shuffling is a matter of serving clients.
“Over the last year, we’ve seen a lot more movement from traditional Grand Rapids firms to some of the firms that are not quite newcomers any more, but are not headquartered here. You have to be able to offer clients the type of legal resources they need,” Gaffin said. Miller Canfield drew two partners from Miller Johnson earlier this year, he noted.
“Some of it is the opportunity to offer their clients services that may not be available at their firms,” he added, pointing to Miller Canfield’s five patent attorneys.
What draws partners out of their cozy spots in homegrown law firms? Kok said he thinks money is part of it, with some hiring firms paying generously on a merit basis rather than the lock-step, paycheck approach, which he thinks is waning.
“Money would be part of it, but it’s not the whole thing,” he said. “I would say there are always attorneys that are thinking, ‘Boy, if I go to this other firm, there are new personal opportunities for me.'” That might include a role in management or practice in another topic of interest, he said.
“I think what we’re seeing is movement among bigger firms to shore up their positions and to get depth in this global market,” Jensen added.
Krauss said he thinks firms are taking a more regional approach to counter the economic downturn in Southeast Michigan.
“They are looking now to become more regional firms to balance out their base so they are not as dependent on Detroit as in the past,” Krauss said.
Last year’s loss of personnel “was a blip for us,” Krauss said. “To be very frank with you, it worked out fine for us, and we hope it worked out for the fine people who went to Clark Hill. We had our best year ever last year.” Law Weathers now claims about 30 attorneys, he said.
“I’m not seeing it as being extremely unstable in Grand Rapids, but there has been a lot more movement in the last year than we’ve seen in a long time,” Kok said.
Sorensen said that now that this genie has been released, there’s no stuffing it back into the bottle.
“In big cities, it hasn’t stopped,” Sorensen said. “I attribute so much of this kind of thing to size. The bigger an organization gets, the more movement you see at every level, whether it’s a partner in a law firm or a file clerk in a law firm. We’re not going to get smaller; we’re going to get bigger.”