Legendary power broker Robert Strauss turns 90 in October, and his health is slipping. But some in the legal community wonder whether, even in his weakened condition, the former US trade representative and ambassador to the Soviet Union might outlast the firm he cofounded after World War II.
Over the past few months, 950-lawyer Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld has lost about 45 lawyers, including two of its rainmakers, Michael Madigan and Richard Wyatt Jr. Tensions are said to be high, with partners in the New York office unhappy that the Washington lawyers are not producing their share of revenue. To increase productivity, Akin Gump pushed out 5 percent of its lawyers who, in management’s view, were not generating enough income. The firm also closed its office in Taipei, one of 12 it maintained outside of Washington, and insiders predict the money-losing Beijing office will be next to go. The China offices have been expensive failures in the eyes of New York partners, who are pressing Washington to stop the bleeding.
The loss of Wyatt, who took nine other lawyers with him, was not part of Akin Gump’s “restructuring.” He was one of the firm’s top business generators. His departure to Richmond-based Hunton & Williams came after a bitter intrafirm battle over how to allocate proceeds from Wyatt’s gigantic settlements. Along with Texas-based partner Larry Macon, Wyatt had been a leader in suing companies on contingency rather than defending them at a limiting hourly rate. But riches have not brought happiness. After collecting one-third of a $487-million antitrust judgment in a 2006 dispute between two manufacturers of hospital beds, partners began fighting over the money. Wyatt believes he will get a bigger share of future big-dollar plaintiffs’ cases with the Richmond firm. Macon is still at Akin Gump, but some insiders fear that he, like Wyatt, may soon make a firm-crippling exit. Headhunters are circling over remaining profitable partners.
Sources say the office squabbling and the failure of the China offices to produce much business apparently got the best of Madigan, whose white-collar practice revolves around defending businessmen caught up in international mischief. His departure after 30 years stunned the firm.
The firm still has several stars, including criminal-defense lawyers John Dowd and Michele Roberts, Supreme Court litigator Tom Goldstein, and lobbying-practice head Joel Jankowsky, and is counting on them to pull Akin Gump out of its tailspin.
Meanwhile, Strauss, board chair of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club near La Jolla, has had a better summer than his partners back home, enjoying the perfect weather and the horseracing out west.