THE ULTIMATE LATERAL HIRE

Among 2011’s “Lateral Partner All-Stars,” Tony Angel’s symbolic importance seems unrivaled. As I write, I don’t know who will make The American Lawyer‘s annual February list. But when Angel became DLA Piper’s leader, his new firm became the definitive poster child for big law’s transformation. Celebrate at your peril.

Whither goest thou?

DLA Piper resulted from the combination of several large firms comprised of once-independent enterprises: DLA’s three U.K. components were Dibb Lupton Broomhead, Alsop Stevens, and Wilkinson Kimbers; Piper Rudnick’s predecessors included Baltimore-based Piper & Marbury, Chicago-based Rudnick & Wolfe, and San Diego-based Gray, Cary, Ware & Freidenrich.

According to its website, DLA Piper grew from 2700 lawyers in January 2005 to 4200 today. The attorneys it added during that period would comprise one of the 20 largest firms in the world — eclipsing Kirkland & Ellis, Weil Gotshal & Manges, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

But is it really a law firm? K&L Gates chairman Peter Kalis makes the telling point that, as a verein, it may be more like a confederation of different firms that share a common name, but not profit pools. Still, adding 1500 attorneys in six years makes any observer wonder about DLA Piper’s global partner conferences. The 2010 meeting took place in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. There’s a metaphor in there someplace.

Ascertaining shared values and visions

According to Am Law Daily, the whirlwind courtship between Angel and DLA Piper began with a May 2011 breakfast meeting that included Frank Burch and others on the leadership team. The idea of naming him global co-chair gained momentum as Angel lined up partner support from the firm’s 76 offices. On November 7, he got the top spot. How?

“He’s got great values and he believes in what we’re trying to do and he shares our view of what’s going on in the world,” said Burch, who now shares DLA Piper’s global chair with Tony Angel. “So, we didn’t hesitate for a second and worry about the fact that the guy was not in the firm.”

Didn’t hesitate for a second? Didn’t worry about the fact that the guy was not in the firm? Why not? When Burch said that Angel has “great values,” “believes in what we’re trying to do,” and “shares our view,” what did he mean?

DLA Piper’s press release offered a hint:

“Tony will work with the senior leadership on the refinement and execution of DLA Piper’s global strategy with a principal focus on improving financial performance and developing capability in key markets.”

Translation: Get bigger and make surviving equity partners richer.

Consultant Peter Zeughauser said that Angel is a hot property: “It’s hard to get a guy that talented. There just aren’t that many people out there who have done what he has done.”

Zeughauser was referring to Angel’s management of Linklaters from 1998 to 2007. When he left, it had a global presence and average partner profits of $2.4 million. Although DLA Piper’s 2010 average partner profits exceeded $1 million in 2010, Angel’s job is to take them even higher.

Ignored in the financial shorthand are questions no one asks:

— Most big firms prospered wildly during big law’s go-go years. Does the person at the top deserve all the credit? The partners who bring in clients, orchestrate deals, and win trials don’t think so.

— Conversely, according to Am Law‘s Global 100, by 2010 Linklater’s 2010 average profits per partner slipped to $1.8 million. Does anyone think that happened because Angel left three years earlier? Not likely.

— What gets sacrificed in the myopic quest for growth and short-term profits? That’s becoming clearer: things that aren’t easily quantified, including a sense of community and a culture that mentors home-grown talent from which a firm’s future leaders can emerge.

Rather than consider the heresy implicit in such questions, the spin zone focuses on what legal headhunter Jack Zaremski called a “brave move” that “might very well pay off.”

Pay off, indeed. In the latest Am Law Mid-level Associates Survey, DLA Piper ranked 99th out of 126 firms. In reviewing their shared values and vision, did Angel and his new DLA Piper partners discuss the rewards that might come with addressing the firm’s attorney morale problems?

Probably not. After all, Linklaters ranked 108th.