Baker & Daniels tries its hand in brutal Chicago

Baker & Daniels, one of Indianapolis’ three largest law firms, has finally opened a Chicago office, years after its local rivals did so. Chicago is known as one of the most difficult markets in the nation to break into.

Baker & Daniels announced this week that it lured seven lawyers from the midsize Chicago firm of Schuyler Roche in order to establish the office.

Baker & Daniels Chairman and Chief Executive Partner Tom Froehle said the time was right because good lawyers were available and because turmoil in the Chicago legal community will make it easier to attract more.

“It seemed to just gel in the past couple of years,” said Froehle, who started in his post in January.

The new office is downtown on Wacker Drive, a few blocks south of Barnes & Thornburg’s outpost and a couple of blocks west of the Chicago office of Ice Miller, Baker & Daniels’ other main competitor. Ice Miller also has an office in the Chicago suburb of Lisle.

Baker & Daniels has long had offices in Fort Wayne, South Bend and China. The firm also has a Washington, D.C., office focused on lobbying.

Barnes & Thornburg moved into Chicago in 1994 and has added 70 lawyers.

Ice Miller opened its Chicago office a decade ago, and has grown to a dozen lawyers. The Lisle location has 15 lawyers.

Baker & Daniels hopes to have 50 lawyers in the new office within two years, Froehle said.

Upheaval in the Chicago market could be a friend to Baker & Daniels, he added.

Market intelligence suggests Chicago firms are pushing out partners who aren’t contributing enough billings, with some large firms asking partners to “de-equitize,” or step out of partner positions, he said.

Baker & Daniels’ new lawyers haven’t been pushed out or asked to leave partner positions. But the changes contribute to an overall unease that is making attorneys more likely to consider jumping to other firms.

Chicago won’t be easy for Baker & Daniels, said Ward Bower, a principal in the New York consulting firm Altman Weil Inc.

Until a couple of years ago, Chicago was more difficult than even East Coast cities as expansion markets, Bower said.

Lawyers in Chicago’s big firms tend to look down on smaller-market firms, and recruit locally from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago as well as other top-flight schools, Ward said. As a result, the climate has an insular quality.

However, cracks are opening as companies stressed by the sluggish economy break apart and prospects for continued legal billings wither, he said.

“That’s an advantage for Baker & Daniels,” Ward said.

Baker & Daniels can play up its full-service capabilities at a time law firms need to be big enough to offer a plethora of services or specialize as small boutiques, Ward said.

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