Like so many newcomers to California, leaders at Virginia-based LeClairRyan have big hopes of expansion. One problem: Nobody here knows who they are.
Although the 310-lawyer firm's roots go back more than 20 years on the East Coast, even its top partners acknowledge that when it comes to growing in the West, reeling in laterals may be tough.
Chairman Gary LeClair notes, by way of example, the recent breakup of midsize San Francisco firm Folger Levin & Kahn, from which Crowell & Moring, Fox Rothschild and Century City's Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff picked up lawyers.
"We didn't even hear about that," said LeClair, whose firm entered the California market in 2008 by merging with another Richmond, Va.-based firm. "We're going to have to work a lot harder to get our name out there."
Still, that's not stopping the firm from drawing up some ambitious plans.
Not long ago, LeClairRyan was known as a corporate middle-market firm in Richmond, living in the shadow of local giants like Hunton & Williams and McGuire Woods. Today the firm spans 20 offices across the country, arriving in California last year through the merger of Wright, Robinson, Osthimer & Tatum.
LeClairRyan doesn't aspire to be a high-end, Am Law 100 firm, but rather a team of experienced lawyers serving major corporations at less than half the hourly rates some of those firms charge. Firm leaders say that model appeals not only to clients but to potential laterals feeling the pressure of higher billing rates and conflicts of interest at bigger firms. LeClairRyan has handled litigation matters for clients such as Daimler Trucks North America Inc., Zurich American Insurance Co., Ingersoll-Rand Co. and Honeywell International.
The firm says it will dedicate next year to building up its nine-lawyer San Francisco outpost and 11-lawyer Los Angeles office. The target is to have 100 lawyers statewide by 2013.
At the moment, the firm is looking to add labor and employment, intellectual property, real estate, corporate and other practices to its base of defense-side tort litigators in California. The firm is talking to lateral partner candidates, groups and even another firm to explore possible combinations, replicating the expansion tactics it's used back East.
"They're all in different places and paces -- nothing imminent," said Stanley Joynes, the firm's full-time chief growth officer, whose role includes identifying potential new markets and lateral partner hires. "We are still feeling our way around."
Tort partner Peter Hart, who heads the San Francisco office, does a lot of the looking, too. He asks his partners to name people they consider thought leaders in a particular practice in California, then puts out a call to introduce himself, the firm, and what they're trying to do. Hart, who has spent the past two weeks in trial in Alameda County Superior Court, says it's a balancing act to make a couple of cold calls a week, run an industry-focused team and try cases. He said having a growth officer like Joynes, who visits California regularly, makes it easier.
The firm is also considering hiring a full-time, in-house head hunter, Hart noted. That way, "if you recruit four people, you don't pay four headhunters."
LeClairRyan partners say its geographic ambitions took seed about four years ago at the urging of clients, including banking and pharmaceutical companies that, they say, wanted the firm to handle work in other markets. LeClairRyan opened its first office outside the Virginia and Washington, D.C., area in 2006, in New York, with lateral partners. More additions followed, including a 2007 merger with 45-lawyer Seiden Wayne on the East Coast, and the 2008 marriage with 50-lawyer Wright Robinson. That firm was based in Richmond, but brought with it offices in California and Detroit as well.
For LeClair, the move to New York was an eye-opener to how much business could be won by offering current clients lawyers in new locales. "Do clients want to train 50 law firms in 50 states? Or just one?" he said. "I became a true believer when we went to California," he added.
Here, they're trying to capitalize on the practices their California lawyers brought to the table and their East Coast clientele.
LeClairRyan leaders view expansion in IP and venture capital work, which they already do back East, as key to penetrating the Northern California market.
In Los Angeles, LeClairRyan hopes to build on relationships in the entertainment and real estate industries that predate its merger with Wright Robinson, said Joynes. A Connecticut partner has long represented some film studios and their distribution arms in antitrust litigation and other matters, and the firm has also been handling matters for a mall owner based in Southern California, Joynes said. "Those are great footholds for us to try and expand in."
Another area Hart says LeClairRyan has been cross-marketing is discovery document management, a service Wright Robinson developed a number of years ago that currently serves clients like Johnson & Johnson and Ford Motor Co. The firm is selling it to financial services clients, Hart said.
Altman Weil management consultant Thomas Clay says Wright Robinson was thinking ahead of the curve. He estimates fewer than 5 percent of law firms have a dedicated discovery service. "Right now, with what's going on with the legal profession, with general counsel having to reduce costs, this is a way to be much more efficient," he said.
While LeClairRyan has ambitions to expand its footprint and bring in more business -- LeClair puts gross revenue in 2008 at "more than $125 million" -- the firm doesn't hold Am Law 100 aspirations.
LeClair says partners at his firm bill in the $300 to $400 range. "Our strategy is more based upon doing trial work, and doing the work for major corporations that want experienced lawyers but may not want to pay $900 per hour for them."
And, in fact, that's part of the firm's pitch to laterals as well as clients.
Joynes, the chief growth officer, says the firm's target laterals are lawyers with 10 to 17 years of experience, who feel confined by their firms' rates and client conflicts as they attempt to build their own practice. "We find that's a particularly sweet spot for us," Joynes said.
Altman Weil's Clay says that, like all newcomers to a market, LeClairRyan will have to show laterals it has something different to offer. "Otherwise, they're going to suffer the 'Who are you and why do we want to hook up with a Richmond firm?'" line of skepticism.
And while he says LeClairRyan's strategy sounds forward-thinking at a time when many firms are just sitting tight, he adds that its success will depend as much on how it manages the growth as on a rigorous pursuit of new lawyers: "It's always in the execution -- as long as they can continue to integrate and be one firm and not just branch offices."
To try to address integration, LeClairRyan has put a number of the California lawyers who merged into the firm in 2008 in leadership positions. Hart and San Francisco partner Charles Osthimer III are both members of the executive committee. Los Angeles partner Paul Burleigh is the office leader there. All three were with Wright Robinson for more than 15 years.
"We recognize that there is a main office. But we make extensive use of video conferencing" and in-person meetings, said Burleigh, noting that the tort defense partners from various offices meet and mingle once a year.
Los Angeles associate Vickie Grasu, who joined Wright Robinson in 2006, says she especially appreciates LeClairRyan's women's group, which gives her more opportunities to connect with female attorneys from other offices to discuss topics by phone and video conference. "That is a program here that just shows the firm's belief in the success of women attorneys," Grasu said. Their next meeting will be a discussion of the book "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers."
Joynes said the conversations that led to both of the firm's recent mergers spanned 18 months, during which each side had a chance to kick the tires. "The more time that you spend and the more information you can impart and receive and dissect, the better your decision making is," Joynes said. "We're looking at the long-term."