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After a year and a half, ex-Jenner chair says Willkie's Chicago ambitions paying off

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REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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Aug 9 - New York's Willkie Farr & Gallagher jumped into Chicago with a splash last March, adding six prominent partners from Jenner & Block, including the Chicago firm's former chairman Craig Martin.

More than 16 months later, Willkie's Chicago office is home to more than 45 attorneys, a number Martin said he expects to grow.

"We haven't lost anybody," said Martin, the firm's Midwest chairman. "And I believe that we have not made an offer to an associate who did not come."

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Martin talked with Reuters this week about Willkie's strategy for succeeding in Chicago's increasingly crowded legal market, the challenge of launching during a pandemic, and how the firm is coping with a resurgence in virus cases.

As many of its Big Law counterparts sweat over whether to postpone plans to return to the office in the coming weeks, Martin said Willkie had already decided not to require any of its employees to return to the office until next year.

The conversation below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

REUTERS: Willkie Farr arrived in Chicago at the end of March as the pandemic started. It seems like kind of an awkward or inopportune time to launch in a new city.

CRAIG MARTIN: It is true that we opened on March 31, 2020. And it is equally true that by that time, COVID had essentially shut down many of the states and cities including Chicago. With perfect 20/20 hindsight, we actually found it to be a blessing, and here's what I mean by that: Our practice during the COVID period was as robust and intense as it always has been. And if anything, the COVID period made it more intense with regard to crisis management for clients, dealing with the myriad of business, employment and other issues that were coming up during the COVID crisis immediately. So our practice did not miss a beat. In fact, it increased quite substantially, as our clients began to deploy us with regard to more corporate and transactional assignments, asset management assignments, and things that Willkie is very well known for in private equity and M&A. Great timing for us, even though you wouldn't have foreseen that as great timing.

REUTERS: How would you describe the state of the Chicago legal market?

MARTIN: From our perspective, there is a flight with regard to clients. There is a flight to talent, and a flight to quality that's going on in the Chicago legal market and is going on in the national and international legal markets. So the demand for our litigation and trial practice, we actually see is increasing. The demand for our private wealth practice we see is increasing because there's a flight to quality going on.

REUTERS: Several other firms have all flocked to Chicago over the past year. Coupled with the firms that are already here, are you worried about the Chicago market becoming saturated?

MARTIN: I don't think that the market in the area in which we compete is saturated at all. The types of matters that we do and the types of clients that we work for are the most substantial corporations and wealthy families in the country, and we represent them in their most impactful economic and reputational matters. With regard to that practice, we are very competitive.

The legal market is very diverse. Firms are playing in all kinds of different spaces in the legal market. It's not surprising to me that other firms are opening offices here. For our part, we are attracting top talent in the legal community, as people learn more about the Willkie Chicago team. So that's what I see is going on. I think there's plenty of room for top-tier legal talent and firms that attract legal talent like that in the Chicago marketplace.

REUTERS: Where's the firm at in terms of masking and vaccinations?

MARTIN: We haven't announced anything with regard to that. The only announcement we've made is that no one will be required to come back to the office until 2022. Those are not issues that we've confronted. I've read all the press that you've read, follow it with great interest as well. We're very tuned in to the science, the CDC and so forth. But we haven't, other than to say that nobody's going to have to be required to come back till 2022, we haven't done anything yet.

(This story was updated to clarify in the lead paragraph that Craig Martin had recently stepped down as chairman of Jenner & Block when he joined Willkie, Farr & Gallagher.)

Read More:

White-shoe law firms get cold feet on office re-openings

IN BRIEF: Willkie launches Chicago office with Jenner & Block's ex-chair

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David Thomas reports on the business of law, including law firm strategy, hiring, mergers and litigation. He is based out of Chicago. He can be reached at d.thomas@thomsonreuters.com and on Twitter @DaveThomas5150.

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