Plummeting Profits at Top Washington Law Firm

Howrey has lost almost 70 partners, and profits per partner are far below average in 2010

Howrey has long been one of Washington’s highest-grossing and most well-respected law firms. Founded in the District in the 1950s, it has since grown to include offices across the country and around the world. But over the past year, the litigation firm has seen nearly 70 of its partners depart, including several in Washington, a story The Washingtonian chronicled here.

During a phone conversation today, former vice chair of the firm Henry Bunsow—who left Howrey’s San Francisco office earlier this month for Dewey & Leboeuf—shed some light on Howrey’s 2010 financial performance. Bunsow tells Washingtonian.com that 2010 profits per partner—i.e., what the average partner made last year—plummeted to $550,000.

Sure, $550,000 still sounds like a lot of money. But for an international law firm of Howrey’s size and stature, it’s a shockingly low figure. Comparable firms typically post profits per partner in the neighborhood of $1 million.

Bunsow was a huge rainmaker for the firm and reportedly took $15 million to $20 million in business with him when he left. He says the partners knew profits would fall short, but not to such a dramatic extent.

In 2009, Howrey’s profits per partner also fell, from $1.3 million to $846,053.

Howrey is reportedly in merger talks with the Chicago-based firm Winston & Strawn, though it’s unclear whether the combination will happen and whether Winston is interested in the entire Howrey firm or just certain practices.

All the turmoil has legal-industry observers speculating about the future of Howrey. Bunsow says he has faith the firm can survive, even if the Winston merger falls through. He adds that the firm has proven it isn’t viable as an international behemoth and that to succeed, it will have to operate on a smaller scale. The Washington and Houston offices, he says, are the most successful.

Firm spokeswoman Christine Till says Howrey's profits per partner for 2010 have not been calculated yet. Still, as vice chair of the firm, Bunsow was in a position to know the details of Howrey's financials and shared the information on the record with Washingtonian.com.

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