D.C. law firm leaders prioritize lateral hiring

Two major law firms this month appointed new leaders of their Washington offices: New York-based Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, which has about 200 attorneys in the District, appointed securities lawyer Jeff Grill to D.C. managing partner; and Richmond-based Hunton & Williams appointed antitrust attorney David Higbee to lead its 140-attorney Washington office. Below is an edited transcript of two separate interviews with Grill and Higbee about their priorities and how Washington fits into their firms’ broader growth strategy.

Q: What are the big issues or changes ahead for your firm in Washington?

Grill : In the short term, we have a significant office move. We have a lease signed at 1200 17th Street, and we’re scheduled to move in at the end of the year. Preparing for a move of almost 200 attorneys and 200 staff is my first big challenge. I’m having two to three meetings a day about the move — about the designs, working with our architects, planning office locations, IT demands, technology demands. In the long term, we hope to work with practice sections on growth, and have greater integration with our Northern Virginia office. We’ve been aggressively seeking new attorneys in the lateral market [moving from one firm to another]. We’ll continue that, primarily targeting energy, real estate, financial services and technology. Those are firm-wide, but they are all areas we look to grow in Washington. Other areas that are more Washington-focused where we’re seeking to grow include health care and litigation.

Higbee: No radical changes. We really want to grow our regulatory practices in D.C. White collar is a significant forward-looking opportunity for us. The [Department of Justice, Securities and Exchange Commission]-related practices, those we want to focus on. I don’t see that as much of a change, but the next natural step of expansion that is relevant to the D.C. office. We don’t have a specific number [of white collar hires] in mind but we would like to find existing groups as opposed to one-off individuals because we’ve had more success with laterals that come as a group that practice together.


David Higbee, new D.C. managing partner of Hunton & Williams. (Hunton & Williams/Hunton & Williams)

Q: Are there any unique challenges that the D.C. legal market faces that other regions do not?

Higbee: D.C. offices on the whole probably face fewer challenges than non-D.C. offices around the country because our legal market is generally strong. The competition for talent in D.C. for regulatory practices is unique because you’re looking for people who have particular experience with certain government agencies, whether it’s the [Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Finance Protection Bureau] or SEC. It’s a more unique focus on the type of profile of talent we’re looking to build in an office. We’re not necessary looking for general civil litigators. We’re looking for someone who understands the agencies — what’s the internal decision-making process there, when do recommendations go up to supervisors, what are your opportunities to influence the decision-making chain.

Q: Are you considering any mergers or acquisitions?

Higbee: Nothing significant. We’re looking to acquire small practice groups that add value and are complementary to us and our clients. But we have a unique culture. . . . We’ve always been very tentative about talking to merger partners because our culture has defined our success, and we’re reluctant to disrupt that.

Grill: We’re always looking at ways to grow as a firm. My role is to focus on individual attorneys. Decisions about larger transactions such as a merger are done by our board and executive team, so I can’t comment on what they may be considering. From my standpoint, my focus is looking at lateral partner hires and potential groups of attorneys from local firms.

Q: Are there any other initiatives going on at the firm?

Grill: A challenge for all law firms is promoting more leadership initiatives for attorneys. We, like most law firms, are aging, and have a number of practitioners that are retiring in the next 10 to 15 years. In my prior role [as the firm’s executive partner for talent development] one of my efforts was to create systems to promote up-and-coming attorneys to leadership positions so they can learn those skills, so we have a core group of people who can become future leaders for our firm. We created in each practice section a “talent development partner.” We tried to pick someone who was more junior, like a younger partner who is dedicated to improving training and mentoring and guiding young attorneys. That’s creating a new leadership position. They were appointed about a year ago. Preparing for the next generation has always been very important for me. I’m fairly young, I’m 42. For me that’s always been very important when I was coming up. For law firms, it’s really critical.

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for Capital Business, which she joined in 2011. She was previously a reporter at the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, covering LA civil courts and labor and employment law.
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