The Management

June 8, 2009 6:47 PM

JPMorgan Beefs Up Law Firm Group Leadership

Posted by Nate Raymond

Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported Lester Pataki's new title at JPMorgan Chase. It's "national banking practice leader," not "national practice leader."

JPMorgan Chase is beefing up its profile in lending to the legal industry. The bank has hired the former head of Citigroup's law firm group.

Lester Pataki, who led the legal industry specialty group in Citi's private bank arm, is joining JPMorgan as the national banking practice leader and chairman of its law firm group, the bank announced Monday. JPMorgan says it hopes to capitalize on Pataki's strategic skills to help it boost its presence in the area.

"The continued growth of our banking and credit capabilities are vital to our momentum in penetrating the high-net-worth market across the United States," Joseph Kenney, CEO of JPMorgan's private wealth management arm, said in a statement. "Lester's sharp business and strategic acumen will be a huge asset for us."

Pataki became head of Citi's law firm group in 2004 after Dan DiPietro took on a client service role. Before that, Pataki was head of strategy for Citi's private banking arm. Pataki left Citi in March though exactly what he would be doing at his new employer was not known at the time.

Citi did not replace Pataki. DiPietro, who acts as the client head of the group, is instead in charge, a spokesman says, along with two regional directors. They report to Peter Charrington, the chief executive for the North American business of Citi Private Bank.

While no league tables exist of law firm lenders, the generally acknowledged pecking order ranks the single largest lender to law firms as Citi, which has been in the business for more than 35 years. It claims relationships with more than 650 law firms and 38,000 attorneys in the United States and the U.K. Other banks over the years, such as Wachovia and SunTrust, have poached talent from Citi in order to build up their own arms tailored toward the legal industry.

JPMorgan had in the past banked with law firms but not through a concerted effort such as Citi and Wachovia until relatively recently. The bank says it formally inaugurated its law firm group in 2006 and "has experienced significant growth" since then. The group, headed by Sharon Weinberg, now works with more than 60 percent of The Am Law 100, including most of the firms based in New York, JPMorgan says.

The group "serves as a family office for top law firms and lawyers," Weinberg said in a statement. "Lester's deep knowledge and insights are a huge advantage as clients continue to discover the power of our differentiated strategy."

Bankers at competitors say they have been kept busy lately thanks to capital calls, which have forced some partners to take out loans. That said, banks have in the past year been dealt blows by the meltdown of some of the nation's top law firms. The four Am Law 200 firms that have fallen -- Heller Ehrman, Thelen, Thacher Proffitt & Wood, and WolfBlock -- all collapsed in part because of issues with their long-term debt or credit lines.

None of those four firms are known to have borrowed from JPMorgan. (Most, except for WolfBlock, turned to Citigroup; Wolfblock turned to Wachovia.) But JPMorgan has not avoided all law firm defaults. New York IP boutique Morgan & Finnegan fell into bankruptcy in March owing the bank $3.82 million of a $6.37 million letter of credit the firm drew down, its Chapter 7 papers show.

Revenue in the private banking sector as a whole has fallen off due to the toll of the economic crisis. Citi Private Bank, under which the law firm group operates, saw a 16 percent decline in revenue in the first quarter, down to $529 million. JPMorgan's private wealth management business, the umbrella that Pataki will operate under, saw revenue decline 11 percent to $312 million in the first quarter.

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Sorry but is JPMorgan still alive?

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