Illustrations by Wesley Merritt
At the dawn of the 21st century, Hogan & Hartson and Howrey Simon Arnold & White—later shortened to Howrey—were among Washington’s biggest and most profitable law firms. They were located less than a block apart near DC’s Metro Center. Each employed hundreds of lawyers who made well into the six figures—and rainmakers at both firms took home more than a million dollars annually.
It took just a decade to transform both of them—a decade filled with fateful decisions, new leaders, and contrasting cultures as both firms attempted to adjust to the emerging 21st-century realities of the legal profession.
Only one of them survived.
While Washington’s venerable law firms seem steady, as permanent as the stone edifices lining DC’s streets, the truth is that they’ve turned into very big businesses that require leaders every bit as visionary as a Fortune 500 CEO, businesses that are as susceptible to the pressures of the global economy as any manufacturing plant in the Rust Belt.
Gone are the days when law-firm partner was a job as solid and tenured as college professor.
Just ask any of the lawyers at Howrey.
The second floor of downtown DC’s Warner Building is eerily quiet. No footsteps echoing off the white marble floors, no ringing phones. Pieces of designer furniture are arranged into odd groupings. Each modern-looking couch and table is tagged with a yellow number indicating the item’s order on the auction block. The only voice comes from a large conference room down a hallway.
“This is a golden, golden opportunity,” the auctioneer tells the two dozen people gathered before him. The bidders are there to pick over the remains of Howrey.
At its peak, Howrey had $573 million in annual revenue, and on average its partners in Washington took home $1.3 million a year. But after 55 years in business, the firm dissolved in March—victim of a perfect storm of problems. The economy, ineffective management, overexpansion, risky investments, and bad luck all played roles in bringing down Howrey. Some of its former lawyers would add another reason: partners too quick to give up.
Now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the Howrey estate is holding the auction on this mid-August afternoon to help pay its debts and to clear out of the 300,000-plus square feet it rents in the Warner Building for $50,000 a day—at one time a reasonable expense. Entire rooms’ worth of furniture sell for as little as $10. One man whispers to the woman next to him that he just saw his own office furniture hit the block and it didn’t get a single bid.
As Howrey’s partners prepared to shutter their firm in March 2011, a neighboring Washington law firm was gearing up for a much different event.
Hogan Lovells, known as Hogan & Hartson prior to its 2010 transatlantic merger, held its first global-partners conference that month at the Gaylord National Hotel at National Harbor, just across the Wilson Bridge from Old Town Alexandria. The three-day affair was the first chance for the newly combined firm’s more than 800 partners to gather in one place since Hogan & Hartson’s union with the London-based law firm Lovells nine months earlier.
The schedule was packed with presentations by firm leaders. Practice groups strategized about ways to develop business.
During one of the three days, a ballroom was filled with more than 40 kiosks, each representing a different Hogan Lovells office. At the Northern Virginia station, the lawyers could sample Virginia peanuts and wine and learn about the local Fortune 500 companies, such as General Dynamics and Gannett, that supply the office with work. The event was intended to encourage partners to get to know one another—not easy at a firm that almost doubled in size overnight to 2,300 lawyers spread across the globe.
For the partners who knew Hogan & Hartson when it was a regional firm, the transformation into one of the world’s ten biggest law firms can be hard to grasp.
Ty Cobb, who started at Hogan in 1988 and is one of the firm’s star white-collar defenders, recalls an exchange he had with his daughter a few months after the merger with Lovells. She was studying abroad in Alicante, Spain, a Mediterranean port city. While on a run, she spotted the Hogan Lovells building. She called her dad to ask why he hadn’t mentioned that his firm had an office in Alicante.
“I had to confess,” says Cobb, “I didn’t know until she told me.”
Next: The world begins to change