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April 7, 2011 5:42 PM

Where There's a Will: Estate Planning Group Bolts Weil for McDermott

Posted by Drew Combs

In move that spells the end for Weil, Gotshal & Manges's decades-old estate planning practice, the chair of the firm's trusts group, Carlyn McCaffrey, and six colleagues have decamped to McDermott Will & Emery, which announced the moves in a statement released Thursday.

“When I came to Weil thirty-six years ago, the trusts and estate practice was 10 percent of the firm, which had 90 attorneys,” McCaffrey tells The Am Law Daily in explaining her decision to leave her longtime professional home. “But over the last number of years the firm’s practice has gone in a different direction. It became very interested in big corporate work and less interested in individual client work.”

Among the relatively recent examples of what McCaffrey is referring to: the bankruptcies of Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., and General Motors, Inc. In both matters, Weil acted as debtor's counsel. As for the firm's size, at the time of McCaffrey’s departure, Weil counted 1,200 lawyers in 20 offices scattered around the world.

Making the move from Weil to McDermott along with McCaffrey are Amy Heller, Elyse Kirschner, Laura Hirschfeld, Christopher Parker, Dena Wolf, and Shu-Ping Shen. Heller and Kirschner join McDermott as partners; Hirschfeld, Parker, and Wolf join as counsel, and Shen joins as an associate. The additions double the size of McDermott’s private client practice group in New York, which McCaffrey will now cohead with partner Henry Christensen III.

“Carlyn and her team strengthen our ability to give our clients the most creative and sophisticated representation possible for their most sensitive needs,” says Carol Harrington, head of McDermott’s private client practice group.

McCaffrey says that the depth of Harrington's group helped persuade her to switch firms: “I decided to leave Weil in part because I could move myself, my clients, and my colleagues to a firm like McDermott that values private client work."

Increasingly, firms with global ambitions have either ignored estate planning work or abandoned it altogether. And given that practices like estate planning are traditionally less profitable and less leveraged, it hasn’t been hard for firms to focus on more lucrative, large-scale transactional and litigation work. Weil executive partner Barry Wolf told The Am Law Daily as much via e-mail.

"Trust and estates has never been a core or global offering for Weil," wrote Wolf. "We wish Carlyn and her team well in their new home." (A firm spokeswoman confirmed that Weil will not replace McCaffrey's group and will cease doing estate planning work.)

McDermott's Harrington says that her firm, which has 1,000 attorneys in 16 offices, has been able to make the practice worthwhile in part by focusing on scale, Harrington says.

“This is a very profitable business when you have a critical mass of attorneys sharing expertise and capital cost,” Harrington says. Adding McCaffrey and her group means McDermott will now have 60 lawyers in its private client group, which specializes in estate planning, tax, and wealth management advice. In contrast to the role it plays at other firms, Harrington says that McDermott's private client group functions as an independent power base.

“We have a great client base and when you have a great client base your fellow partners respect you,” Harrington says. “We are not a service group. We are not here to just service other partner's clients, we have our own clients.”

 

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There are other substantial firms, such as SNRDenton, with thriving trusts and estates practices which are seeking to expand those practices by adding appropriate people in their offices with T&E practices, and expanding their T&E practices into those offices that do not yet cover this important area of the practice of law.

We look forward to hearing from potential partners and counsel with substantial practices who are interested in joining us.

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