Big firm trusts & estates practice groups

Big firms have been shedding their trusts and estates practice groups for decades (see here).  But those that still have them apparently populate them with the most interesting lawyers at the firm.  At least that's what I gather from reading Undue Influence: The Epic Battle for the Johnson & Johnson Fortune, by David Margolick.  Here are two gems from his book:

:"[A]t Shearman & Sterling as at most large firms, the individual-clients group was a loss leader, a service the firm extended to plutocratic executives, but a gilded graveyard for those lawyers -- eccentrics, aristocrats, gays, fops, women -- who traditionally congregated in them."

"[Sullivan & Cromwell's] probate department was small and idiosyncratic, inhabited by the usual collection of oddballs, geniuses, and women.  It was the only place at the firm where one could be an associate in perpetuity and eccentric with impunity."

Well, one of S&C's eccentric, oddball geniuses has decided to go elsewhere.  As reported here in the WSJ Law Blog:

Trusts and estates lawyer Henry “Terry” Christensen III, who formerly represented New York society doyenne Brooke Astor, is leaving Sullivan & Cromwell after more than 37 years to join McDermott Will & Emery. Christensen is the senior partner in Sullivan’s T&E practice and former head of the group.

It is almost unheard of for a partner to leave Sullivan, one of the country’s most prestigious and profitable law firms. Its average profits per partner in 2006 were about $2.8 million, double that of McDermott’s, according to the American Lawyer.

Christensen, as well as a person at the firm, said he was departing because of recent potential conflicts between work for his individual clients and corporate clients of the firm. Here’s the press release from McDermott trumpeting Christensen’s pending arrival.

Among Christensen’s clients are the Tate Gallery and the Starr Foundation. S&C represented Astor, now 105 years old, for more than 40 years, and Christensen handled the Astor relationship for the firm when it ended in 2004. For prior Law Blog coverage of the flap surrounding Astor’s fortune, click here, here and here.

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Jeffrey S. Goethe - July 30, 2007 8:52 AM

As the Trusts and Estates Lawyer in a small firm, maybe I'm exempt from the charicature in the book you brought to our attention? (I hope so). I have seen other articles where T&E lawyers at big firms leave either to join other firms or to set up a "boutique" firm. I'm fortunate to practice with some great transactional and litigation attorneys. I do see a big difference in the business aspects of the different areas of practice. With non-lawyer competition for for estate planning, it is tough to get away with hourly billing for such work. It is also an area where it is tough to delegate everything to paralegals or associates, especially with complex, time-consuming planning which carries a great risk for the "m" word. Therefore, when a litigation attorney looks at the billing and profit reports, the estate planning practice does not look so good. I think it does take a special personality to be a T&E attorney.

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