As the largest legal market in the Midwest, Chicago has seen more out-of-town firms enter its borders than any other city in this regional report.

Of the 91 law firm mergers tracked by law firm consultancy Altman Weil last year, five involved a Chicago-based firm being acquired by a larger firm. The newcomers in the past few years are regional or national players: Akerman; Cozen O'Connor; Shook, Hardy & Bacon; Nixon Peabody; Taft Stettinius & Hollister.

At the same time, many of the city's legacy firms have seen their offices in Chicago dwindle. The five largest offices in the city have suffered head count declines ranging from about 3 percent to 21.2 percent of their Chicago head count since 2011, according to NLJ 500 data.

Will Chicago's hometown firms hold their own amid the influx of competitors? Yes, say a number of recruiters, consultants and law firm leaders.

The city's top tier of firms — Kirkland & Ellis, Sidley Austin, Mayer Brown, Winston & Strawn, McDermott Will & Emery, Jenner & Block and others — continue to battle largely among themselves for their share of the most expensive, high-stakes assignments.

The biggest M&A matters in the city are still likely to have Kirkland or Sidley lawyers working on them.

Winston and Jenner still tend to command the docket for big-ticket litigation in the Daley Center or Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Chicago facts


 2.7 million 

 Rank among cities by number of NLJ 500 lawyers  


 Number of NLJ 500 lawyers  


 Number of NLJ 500 offices  


 Number of ABA-accredited law schools in the area  


Sources: 2016 NLJ 500; U.S. Census Bureau; Law School Admission Council

"The legacy firms are competing for the very best work done at the highest rates," said Ron Nye, managing partner of Major Lindsey & Africa's Chicago office.

Biggest Law Offices by Attorney Totals

 Kirkland & Ellis  


 Sidley Austin  


 Mayer Brown  


 Winston & Strawn  


 McDermott Will & Emery  


Source: 2016 NLJ 500

Meanwhile, many of the firms newer to Chicago are locked in competition for local or national work representing midsize businesses, recruiters said. The size of the city — and an international focus by many of its firms — means that there are more layers of competition in Chicago than in smaller cities across the Midwest.

"The firms coming into Chicago are fighting over a more commoditized market, and there is major competition among them," said Kay Hoppe, a longtime recruiter in Chicago. "Being successful here, it's all about figuring out what your market is, and dominating it."

All of these firms are competing against industry headwinds that are hitting the Windy City particularly hard, according to data from Citi Private Bank's Law Firm Group.

Demand fell 3.2 percent for the first half of the year, according to an August 2016 Citi survey of Chicago-based firms. Of the 11 regions or cities Citi surveys, that was the second largest drop, better only than Texas. Meanwhile, expenses at those same Chicago firms rose 5.2 percent. That was primarily driven by a 7.8 percent increase in compensation, a figure that isn't yet affected by the industrywide rise in associate salaries, said John Wilmouth of Citi Private Bank.

Jenner & Block is one large legacy Chicago firm that has been growing head count locally this year. It hired six new partners in its corporate practice in the city through July, according to ALM data and confirmed by Joseph Gromacki, chair of the firm's corporate practice. It has hired lawyers from Kirkland, Mayer Brown, Seyfarth Shaw and Jones Day.

"These folks are part of our overall strategy of growing our corporate presence and becoming a destination practice not just in Chicago, but nationally," Gromacki said. "Sure, there is more competition [in Chicago]. But I think we continue to capture a very premium, high-end market share."

Mayer Brown's Chicago office managing partner, Rebecca Eisner, said that the firm's Chicago office is its largest by head count, revenue production and profitability. After a period of head count decline, she said, the office has grown in the past two years, and her goal is to continue growing its size by 3 percent a year.

But that doesn't mean that all those lawyers are working with clients in the Chicago area. A large portion of the bills generated by lawyers in the city are being paid by clients across the country and the globe, Eisner said.

"We don't derive a substantial portion of our business from the Chicago market. We are serving national and international clients," she said. "That's our strategy."

For some regional firms, the opposite may be true. Polsinelli's local managing partner, Tony Nasharr, said that 38 percent of the work originating in Chicago is handled by lawyers in other cities. With nearly 100 lawyers in the city, it is one example of a newcomer finding a second home in Chicago.

"The big firms are competing for national and global work coming from Chicago," Nasharr said. "We're doing, bluntly, the same thing, but on a national basis."

Reprinted with permission from the August 29, 2016 edition of The National Law Journal © 2016 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.