The departure of a number of prominent trust-and-estates partners from Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal has highlighted – again – the precarious nature of big firm trusts and estates departments.

As a partner in a small "boutique" trusts-and-estates firm (4 partners, 1 associate) I’ve seen first hand why this practice is a tough sell for big firm bean counters: leverage.  It’s very, very difficult to leverage yourself as a T&E lawyer, which is OK in a small firm — but not-so-OK in a big firm.  Here’s an excerpt of what the Wall St. J. Law Blog had to say on the the subject:

With profitability a top priority at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, one practice group is under the microscope: trusts and estates. Four T&E partners at Sonnenschein in recent weeks have either left or announced plans to leave the 660-lawyer firm.

Roy Adams, the senior chairman of the practice group, left on Jan. 1 for Constantine Cannon; Eileen Trost jumped to Chicago’s Bell Boyd & Lloyd in December; Richard Brown recently departed for Harrison & Held; and Susan Slater-Jansen has announced she’s moving to Kurzman Eisenberg Corbin Lever & Goodman in White Plains, N.Y.

The departures come at a time when Elliott Portnoy .  .  .  , the firm’s 41-year-old chairman-elect, has said he is bent on taking a hard look at the economics of Sonnenschein’s various departments. T&E may be vulnerable because it is a low “leverage” practice — fewer junior lawyers generally are needed, say, to draft a will than to complete a merger agreement.

I say good riddance — a sentiment apparently shared by Chicago T&E lawyer Joel Schoenmeyer, as expressed in the following excerpt from his blog, Death & Taxes:

It may be that big firms don’t need estate planning groups (or don’t think they do — big firms, like Kirkland & Ellis, are famous for changing their minds on this point). But I think that goes both ways — good estate planners don’t need big firms, either. We’re probably going to see more T&E boutique firms (like this one) spring up in the near future, which is a good thing.