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SAN FRANCISCO — Soon after the financial crisis hit, the retreats and focus groups started. Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin, a fiercely independent firm that has prided itself on its intellectual prowess and blue-nose pedigrees, was forced to reconsider its business plan — something its leaders had sworn up and down never to do.

But with the economy in free fall and legal work dropping off, the 80-lawyer San Francisco firm, with just one office and an aging rainmaker base, was going to struggle to stay competitive without major changes.

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