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Is knowledge more valuable than a client base?

Posted by: Laurence Simons 07/08/12

Maybe, according to Pennsylvania hiring policies.

Changes in the summer recruitment policy of several high-profile Pennsylvania law firms seems to be signifying a movement towards hiring on the strength of experience and know-how rather than a bulging rolodex of client contacts, according to Legal Intelligencer.

Law firms in the area saw a surge in legal hiring during July, with the lateral movement of lawyers from coveted in-house counsel jobs back into the world of private practice being a surprisingly popular move.
Pittsburgh firm Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott re-hired Gregory A Weingart from his general counsel position at FFC Capital Corp, where the former corporate and business counsel will build once again on 20 years already served at the firm. Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney welcomed energy attorney Mark D Tattoli - wooing him over from an in-house role at Texas-based NuStar Energy - while Reed Smith partner Carole B Sheffield joined Philadelphia-based Anderson Kill.

Why the change? According to Maura McAnney of McAnney, Esposito & Kraybill Associates, both law firms and corporate law departments have changed their business models in recent years, putting the onus on knowledge over contacts and making the in-house to private practice switch (and vice versa) more fluid.
"Each entity has redesigned what it looks for in a lawyer," the expert said.

It all sort of flies directly in the face of traditional thinking that valued a significant client book above all, but those making the switch from in-house back to private practice could be at risk of sinking rather than swimming, simply because the two fields require wholly different thinking. Allow the Canadian Lawyer to explain.

"In private practice, the focus is often placed on the law firm’s bottom line, not the client’s bottom line. If you need more money, simply raise your rates," said Jim Middlemiss. "What strikes me about in-house lawyers is they think differently than their private-practice counterparts. They see their primary task as risk managers."
Essentially, that means offering clients value for their time, offering additional soft services or establishing a project fee. For private practice, that could spell danger for the firm's bottom line. In an economy where getting recruitment right at the first try is more important than ever, the in-house to private practice route that is so hip in Pennsylvania could be a precarious one.