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Chicago law firms have been ambling into the Bay Area in greater numbers in recent years, capitalizing on solid, recession-proof practice areas that are allowing them to boost their lawyer ranks even as home-grown firms cut back. The firms — many of them already among the largest in the nation — quietly set up shop in the late 1990s during the dot-com bubble. But unlike counterparts from New York that made a big push into the region, they left most of the sexy tech work — venture capital financing, initial public offerings and big mergers and acquisitions — alone. Labor and employment, insurance defense, litigation and real estate have proved to be safe bets ever since the technology markets plummeted and corporate firms started to go hungry. With average profits per partner of $600,000, a reputation of collegiality and a stable of established clients, some Chicago-based firms are hitting the market for new recruits with corporate and intellectual property experience. When it comes to enticing potential new recruits these days, the Chicago firms consistently land near the top, said Avis Caravello, a San Francisco legal recruiter. “Chicago firms are seen as strong contenders for interesting lateral opportunities,” Caravello said. “Next to the New York firms, they’ve been successful in building strong corporate practices.” Second City firms with Bay Area practices include Baker & McKenzie; Hinshaw & Culbertson; Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw; McDermott, Will & Emery; Seyfarth Shaw; Sidley Austin Brown & Wood; and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. An eighth firm, Katten Muchin Zavis Rosenman, maintains a Palo Alto office for visiting Los Angeles lawyers who have meetings with local clients, but it does not have any lawyers based in the Bay Area. Kirkland & Ellis is in the planning stages of its move to the Bay Area. “Their impact is not so much their arrival here, but we all compete on a national basis and some of those Chicago firms are absolutely some of the major competitors,” said Barry Levin, chairman of S.F.’s Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe. Their threat locally will grow over time as they build up their offices, he added. “As they get bigger here, that will give them a better platform to compete for work on the West Coast.” What they offer is a national reach, either in specific specialties or across a broad range of practice groups, and an opportunity to start fresh in a satellite seen as having more autonomy than those of other out-of-town firms. Lawyers who have joined Chicago outposts also say the firms foster a more open, friendly working environment than the indigenous or New York firms. At Sonnenschein, for example, collegiality is a part of the compensation process for partners, said Robin Edwards, a San Francisco-based partner who serves on the firm’s management committee. During biennial reviews, for example, partners are expected to detail whom among their colleagues helped them and how. “It’s a plus when laterals meet people in some of our other offices and realize how much respect people have for one another and that people really do work as a team,” Edwards said. The firm plans to use its culture as a selling point as it recruits corporate and intellectual property talent. Since opening in 1988, the firm has emphasized its historic specialties of litigation and real estate, but now is beating the bushes for corporate lawyers. “We have more litigators than transactional lawyers here, and for that reason we have not been hit particularly hard as a result of the downturn,” Edwards said. Still, she said, “we haven’t grown the corporate practice in San Francisco as much as we’d have liked.” The firm may cut a compelling image on the hiring front. Despite its low profile on the local scene, Sonnenschein is on the upswing. Last year, the firm boosted its profits per partner by 38 percent, to $510,000. Edwards said the firm is looking to incorporate an IP strategy for the office into the firm’s five-year strategic plan currently in the works. Among the Chicago firms, the most aggressive recruiter has been McDermott. The firm opened its Palo Alto office in 2000 by hiring intellectual property rainmaker Anthony de Alcuaz from Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin. De Alcuaz then quickly scored a hiring coup when he bagged big-gun litigator Terrence McMahon from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. When called on to build an office from scratch, de Alcuaz said he was undeterred by McDermott’s Midwestern roots. “The possibilities of developing what I wanted to develop in the Valley with their resources were just infinitely better than developing it with a regional firm.” In the following two years, de Alcuaz hired a handful of litigators from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and a team of tax partners from Fenwick & West. The office now has 27 lawyers, 13 of which are partners. De Alcuaz says he is in the market for corporate talent. In two years, McDermott is fast closing in on Midwestern competitors that planted local roots years ago but didn’t grow their ranks as quickly. Seyfarth Shaw, for example, opened up in San Francisco in 1984 and counts 47 lawyers. And Sonnenschein has been in the Bay Area since 1988 and has 60 lawyers. For the newest arrival — Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw — launching a Palo Alto office paid off quickly. The firm, which opened in June 2001 as Mayer, Brown & Platt before the firm merged with London’s Rowe & Maw earlier this year, scored more work from its existing clients just by virtue of being nearby. James Walther, managing partner of Mayer, Brown’s eight-lawyer office, said Cisco Systems Inc. hired the firm to handle the company’s financial deals with customers. That’s in addition to the tax and legislative work the company has historically passed on to the firm. “That is something that we probably wouldn’t have gotten started with if we hadn’t come out here,” Walther said. Still, the firm would have liked to open up sooner, he said. Mayer, Brown mulled over opening a Silicon Valley office twice in the 1990s but the idea didn’t get any traction despite a steady increase in corporate work offered by the region, Walther said. “We needed the right combination of people willing to move,” Walther said. “And it took the firm awhile to realize how strong we already were in Palo Alto and Silicon Valley.” Some of the strongest relationships the firm has didn’t develop until the late 1990s, Walther said. One of them is with well-known venture capitalist John Doerr. The firm helped Doerr form what is now TechNet, a Silicon Valley lobbying group. While there’s not much by way of startup or other corporate work in the Valley right now, Mayer, Brown lawyers are using the downtime to network both for clients and new hires, Walther said. The firm hopes to add about 15 lawyers in the next year, in IP, corporate and litigation, he said. There is an exception among the Chicagoans when it comes to expanding, and that’s Hinshaw & Culbertson. The firm, which opened in San Francisco in 1998, has 16 lawyers that specialize in professional liability and major insurance disputes and doesn’t intend to duke it out with other firms for corporate talent. “We’re all so busy now,” said Robert Romero, a partner. “The thought of growing further isn’t something we need to think about right now.” See related article: Bay Area Attracts a Whole Host of Out-of-Towners See related chart: Windy City Presence In The Bay Area

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