As a brown haze shrouded Southern California on Tuesday, law firms in San Diego's Carmel Valley region remained shuttered, and more and more local attorneys were forced to leave their homes.
At Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, the chief operating officer and a partner have already lost their homes, and dozens of attorneys have been displaced -- including managing partner Robert Bell.
"It's pretty unreal down here," said Bell, who's staying in the Marriott after being displaced from his Rancho Santa Fe home. Last night, he and his family stayed in the Hotel Solamar, which offered a $99 rate and wine and cheese, and allowed displaced guests to bring along their pets.
The major firms clustered in Carmel Valley -- including Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton; Latham & Watkins; Morrison & Foerster; Cooley Godward Kronish; and Fish & Richardson -- have faced mandatory evacuations since Monday. Dozens of attorneys and staff members from those offices have been forced from their houses.
Two of Luce's offices in San Diego County are closed, and the large downtown office is only open for people who choose to come, Bell said. "We want to make sure they take care of their families first."
Luce attorneys and staff whose homes are in safe areas are helping provide displaced colleagues a place to stay.
Mark Zebrowski, MoFo's managing partner of the San Diego office, said at least one MoFo partner had lost his home.
"We don't even know the human impact yet," said Zebrowski, who described dark smoke, howling winds and eucalyptus trees crashing into the roads. "There's been 500,000 evacuated, and that includes a lot of our people."
Fish & Richardson managing partner John Phillips estimated that a third of the office's 180 staffers and attorneys have been displaced, while Sheppard, Mullin's Richard Kintz, head of the firm's Del Mar office, said about 50 percent of his co-workers had been forced from their homes.
Phillips was ordered to evacuate his home, then allowed to return, and may now have to leave again, he said. Hotels, he said, "are packed solid."
Latham also had reduced staff downtown, in response to authorities' requests that people stay off the roads, a spokesman said. The firm's remote-access systems are working, he said, adding, "It may be a while longer before the full picture is clear."
Most firms say they're coping through a mix of attorneys working remotely and in other firm offices such as downtown San Diego or Orange County.
Kintz, who has been displaced from his home and office, said his firm was working to serve clients through the crisis. "From a legal standpoint I'd like to say, it's business as usual, but from multiple locations."Fish & Richardson has a firmwide task force meeting several times a day to manage problems and track employees. The firm is monitoring dockets closely.
"There are still client demands and court dates, and we can't decide not to meet them," Phillips said. "We're trying to communicate with everyone, offering assistance, and we've relocated work to different offices."
Sheppard's Kintz was out in Palm Desert this weekend when his son called and advised him not to come back to San Diego. He's been working remotely with his cell phone, the Internet and much cleaner air.
Other attorneys are working from hotels or their homes, he said. The omnipresent BlackBerry makes it easy to get in touch with lawyers, but finding staff has been more challenging, he said. In response, the firm has relocated staff from other offices to handle the extra work in San Diego.
"The fires have disrupted the flow of legal work, but clients have been understanding and apologetic -- many of them are in the same situation we are," Kintz said, adding that one client from Phoenix calls him several times a day to check in on the situation.
MoFo's Zebrowski agreed that the national headlines have made most clients aware -- and sympathetic -- to the chaos. It has also helped that state and federal courts in San Diego have been closed.
MoFo has opened up its Orange County office for San Diego refugees. Since the Del Mar Heights offices haven't burned, voicemail and servers are still accessible from other locations.
But despite the work concerns, Zebrowski said he's focusing on making sure attorneys and staff are OK.
"Our people and the other people in town are the most important," he said. "Business comes a very distinct second."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.