Law360, Chicago (October 3, 2017, 1:42 PM EDT) — To stand out from the crowd in a city that counts the law among its primary industries, Law360’s 2017 Illinois Powerhouses rode Chicago’s real estate boom, navigated transactions in its burgeoning private equity sector and helped build the city’s reputation as a class action center.
The six firms chosen as part of Law360’s Regional Powerhouse series have used their Chicago offices to dominate a market where firms ranging from BigLaw to boutique are competing for the choicest clients and cases.
“There’s a lot of room to be successful as a law firm in Chicago at all different sizes and levels of profitability,” said Kent Zimmermann, a legal consultant with Zeughauser Group.
Dentons, Edelson PC, Jenner & Block LLP, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Mayer Brown LLP and Sidley Austin LLP round out Law360’s Illinois Powerhouses for 2017, ranging in Illinois headcount from 27 at Edelson to nearly 650 at Kirkland & Ellis. But regardless of a firm’s local presence, 2017 has brought each major wins, settlements and transactions in a variety of practice areas.
Changing the Face of a City
This year’s Illinois Powerhouses have taken advantage of major projects redeveloping or expanding some of Chicago’s most important locations, playing key roles behind the scenes as the city rides a wave of development projects.
Mayer Brown’s transactional work touched on Illinois’ infrastructure, with Chicago-office attorneys guiding the Illinois Department of Transportation in a proposed public-private partnership that would introduce managed lanes to help manage a congested Chicago-area highway. The plan, which would be the state’s the first public-private partnership involving toll lanes, is awaiting approval from the Illinois General Assembly.
Mayer Brown also facilitated a deal for a new hotel at the iconic Navy Pier, guiding its owner, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, into a sublease for the hotel’s construction and operation.
Dentons represented investment firm Blackstone as it put together a $500 million renovation of the city’s famous Willis Tower — still known to stubborn locals as the Sears Tower. The deal, which will renew 460,000 square feet of space and add a significant amount of retail to the skyscraper, has Dentons handling all construction, leasing, licensing and intellectual property issues.
The firm also took the lead on the redevelopment of the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field and its surrounding neighborhood, representing Hickory Street Capital as it builds a hotel and mixed-use development next door to the famous ballpark.
The cranes dotting the city’s skyline have been big business for Dentons, Chicago office managing partner Leah Bruno told Law360.
“We have long and deep roots here, particularly in our real estate and litigation practices,” Bruno said. “It’s been a great year.”
Guiding Chicago’s Big Business
Illinois Powerhouses led their Chicago-based clients through major transactions across a wide spectrum of industries in the last year.
Kirkland & Ellis continued its domination in the private equity sector, providing guidance to Chicago firm GTCR LLC and its portfolio companies on at least 15 transactions in the last year. Among them was GTCR and The Carlyle Group’s recently announced plan to acquirelife sciences research and development company Albany Molecular Research Inc., a deal valued at just under $1 billion.
The firm also worked with Chicago-area giants Abbott Laboratories Inc. and The Boeing Co. in major acquisitions this year, with Abbott taking over Alere Inc. and Boeing claiming marine robotics maker Liquid Robotics.
Chicago is home to the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the nation’s largest options exchange, which called on Sidley Austin to facilitate its acquisition of Bats Global Markets Inc. in a $3.2 billion deal earlier this year.
Zimmermann pointed to Kirkland and Sidley as firms that have positioned themselves to capitalize on the region’s hot private equity business.
As a result, the firms are among a group he said have “pulled away from the rest of the pack in terms of their profitability.”
Jon Ballis, a partner in Kirkland’s corporate group and a member of the firm’s global management executive committee, told Law360 Kirkland’s experience in private equity spans more than 30 years.
“We are fortunate to have grown alongside many of our private equity clients as their businesses have expanded and become more complex,” Ballis said.
Manning the Consumer Litigation Frontlines
Chicago’s popularity with the class action bar, due in part to the Seventh Circuit’s interest in class actions, makes it a major source of business for the region’s strongest firms.
Law360’s 2017 Powerhouses scored big wins in class actions, both as plaintiffs counsel and on the defense side.
Edelson has racked up a reputation for filing first-of-their-kind class actions against the tech industry over consumer privacy issues, including the landmark Robins v. Spokeo case. But some of their biggest moves in 2017 came in cases outside the tech realm.
In November 2016, Edelson principal Jay Edelson was named lead counsel in one of the largest actions pending in the country, a multidistrict litigation over concussions that currently includes about 100 personal injury class actions filed by college football players against their schools.
His firm also negotiated a $76 million settlement in a Telephone Consumer Protection Act case against a group of cruise marketing companies, reaching the deal in September 2016, just days before trial. Under the settlement, class members are expected to receive more than $100 per call received.
On the defense side, Jenner & Block blocked two proposed class actions against its Chicago-based client The Northern Trust Co. this year. In March, an Illinois federal judge sided with Northern Trust in a suit over its alleged illegal altering of its employee pension plan, and in July, Jenner & Block won dismissal of a putative class’ claims the financial services company violated its fiduciary duty while managing certain trusts.
Leading the Search for Talent
While Dallas is known for energy and Los Angeles is known for entertainment, law is one of Chicago’s most prominent industries.
Besides the fact it is home to some of the country’s biggest names in law schools, it’s got firms of nearly every size and expertise.
“Within a stone’s throw, you’re near thousands if not more very high-quality lawyers,” Zimmermann said. “There aren’t that many cities that match the talent base of lawyers that Chicago has.”
But competition is fierce for top talent, and the most successful firms are using their investments in specific practice groups as a tool to recruit the best in those areas, Zimmermann said. By going offering sought-after partners a chance to bring their talents to the best team around, top firms are stacking the decks with attorneys who dominate their fields.
But while partners may have many choices for lateral moves, the firms are looking for people who will expand their client base, said Steve Fretzin, a Chicago-based business development coach for attorneys.
Fretzin said it’s a “mad dash” right now for partner laterals, with some attorneys receiving several calls a week from recruiters who want them to bring their business to a new firm.
No matter what an attorney’s background, “it’s more what you are able to take away from the law firm and bring to us,” he said.
Looking to the Future
The Illinois Powerhouses have reaped the benefits of Chicago’s strong legal economy over the last year, an economy perennially bolstered by the city’s prime location and its reputation for high rates.
Firms that are already here are hiring and moving into bigger space, Fretzin said. Powerhouse Edelson is one of them — it’s in the process of building out more space for a staff that has grown by 35 percent in the last year.
And Zimmermann said his smaller, independent clients are inundated with calls from large national firms about potential mergers.
“Chicago is high on the priority list for a lot of firms around the country,” Zimmermann said. “[It’s] up there like New York, Houston, the San Francisco Bay Area and Dallas as among the places firms want to grow most.”
Chicago-based Arnstein & Lehr LLP got snapped up by Saul Ewing LLP at the beginning of September, creating a 400-attorney, 15-office firm with a strong Midwest presence.
But for firms focused on growing under their own umbrella, increased investment in marketing and training attorneys on how to introduce current clients to other practice groups is popular, Fretzin said.
Once they find the strategy that works for them, Chicago firms should toast to their good fortune.
“Chicago is one of the domestic money centers in the United States,” Zimmermann said. “That’s largely why it’s been a great legal market over the years, and continues to be.”
–Editing by Jeremy Barker.