In break from tradition, government lawyers looking to join small, specialized law firms

August 19, 2012

Veteran Justice Department lawyer Rob Park is joining mid-size law firm Murphy & McGonigle today, a move legal industry analysts say is part of an emerging trend of high-level government attorneys foregoing Big Law for smaller, specialized firms.

The revolving door between federal agencies and large corporate law firms has long provided a career path for attorneys in Washington, which has the highest concentration of lawyers in the nation. But the global recession hit the legal industry hard, forcing many large firms to lay off staff and lower billing rates to hang on to corporate clients. Now, boutique firms such as the 30-lawyer Murphy & McGonigle, founded in 2010 by 15 attorneys from Richmond-based LeClairRyan, are poised to grow — becoming increasingly attractive to lawyers looking to leave both government posts and large law firms.

“I think people are willing to explore a boutique more now than in the past,” said Jeffrey Lowe, managing partner of the D.C. office of legal consulting firm Major Lindsey & Africa. “For a lot of people, it makes sense.”

Park, former assistant chief in the criminal division’s fraud section, said the small firm environment at Murphy & McGonigle, which represents banks and other financial services clients in government investigations, is a better fit for the practice he wants to develop advising companies on compliance programs to combat fraud. Park also predicts the pressure to generate business quickly will be less intense than at large corporate firms, many of which are facing slimmer profit margins than ever before.

“Large law firms have such a voracious need for new business that it makes the pressure all the more intense,” Park said. “I looked at several [larger firms] and I had some interest, but I didn’t get the sense it was going to be as supportive an environment during the period I was developing business. I thought I’d be on an island by myself.”

Smaller boutiques typically have less overhead than large global firms. Unlike large firms that staff client matters with junior associates who bill hourly — and then pass those costs onto clients — boutique firms usually hire partner-level attorneys who specialize in one area. This makes boutiques “leaner and meaner,” said Justin Shur, former deputy chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section. Shur left the agency earlier this year for D.C. litigation boutique MoloLamken, a 16-lawyer firm co-founded in 2009 by Jeff Lamken, himself a former assistant to the solicitor general.

“More and more in-house lawyers are interested in hiring boutique firms for certain types of matters that they previously looked to big law firms to handle,” Shur said. “The value proposition is greater. I think experienced lawyers, including lawyers coming out of the government, are realizing that.”

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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