The Talent

October 16, 2009 1:58 PM

Start-up Lures Big Firm Refugees with Lower Billing Rates, Higher Morale

Posted by Francesca Heintz

This year has been a tough one for Big Law. Not only are profits down, layoffs up, and morale low, but some big-firm lawyers have fled altogether, choosing to go it alone. 

In January, Seth Bryant, of counsel in DLA Piper's corporate securities group, left to start his own transactional boutique. He was joined by Gopal Burgher, Scott Jaffe, and Paul Roberts in August, all of whom had worked at big firms for years, including Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Clifford Chance

The boutique, Bryant Burgher Jaffe & Roberts, has continued to attract big-firm refugees, adding seven new lawyers this week and bringing its head count to 18. The three new partners include tax lawyer Steven Ruskin, of counsel at Dewey & LeBoeuf and a former partner at both Morrison & Foerster and Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, and Paul Weiffenbach, a former structured finance partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

Bryant isn't the only big-law refugee to strike out on his own this year. Andrew Sandler, head of Skadden's consumer financial services and enforcement litigation practice, left his longtime firm in March to start a financial services boutique. In May, four Clifford Chance litigators broke off to form an arbitration boutique. That same month three former Irell & Manella partners launched a litigation boutique in Los Angeles.

But Bryant's firm is different. For starters, it's certified as a minority-owned business, which helps attract clients trying to diversify their legal services providers (Bryant and a number of the partners are African American). Bryant is also trying to expand the firm's transactional focus by recruiting litigators. (Currently, the firm has expertise in municipal finance, M&A, private equity, and real estate.)

"I really thought there was an opportunity to create an MBE firm with great pricing and amazing lawyers, but what I'm humbled by is the sophistication of the firm's practice and capabilities," says Bryant, who had started another firm in 2003 before leaving for DLA a few years later.

Being able to provide lower rates is a major draw for big-firm lawyers who are feeling pressured by their firms' rate structures. Bryant Burgher offers flat fees, volume discounts, and monthly retainers. Hourly billing is also "at least two-thirds the price of what it would be at a big firm," Bryant says.

Finding talent has been easy, since most of the new hires have come through word of mouth. Name partner Burgher went to NYU law school with Bryant. Ruskin, who joined the firm this week, worked with Bryant while he was an associate at MoFo. 

"I don't think the big-firm model is an attractive one," Bryant says. "The people on my team feel similarly."

Hiring big-firm lawyers also means clients are more likely to follow. Bryant Burgher has done M&A work for DuPont and municipal finance work for Morgan Stanley, both clients brought over by new hires.The firm is also in talks with a Fortune 20 company and top asset management company that were attracted by its seasoned lawyers and low rates, Bryant says.

"We don't have any aspirations to become a huge firm," he says. "But we have put together an A-list team and can offer amazing pricing so it creates a level of interest that none of us would have enjoyed at our prior firms."

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