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After a rather lengthy search for the right opportunity, Dechert is opening a small San Francisco office focused on real estate finance that will be headed by a former partner. Joseph Heil, who worked in Dechert’s Philadelphia office from 1988 until 1998, will serve as managing partner. Heil is scouting for office space and associate candidates. He said he already has two associates lined up and expects to have two more in place by the time the office opens, sometime next month. Dechert chairman Barton J. Winokur said the firm had been exploring Northern California opportunities for much of the past year. The office will initially serve as a franchise for the firm’s thriving real estate finance practice, which also has a significant presence in its Philadelphia, New York and London offices. He said the firm had used a similar approach when opening offices in Boston and Newport Beach, Calif., which were started as financial services boutiques. “We think there’s a real market in San Francisco for real estate finance work,” Winokur said. “We will add other practice areas like intellectual property and business technology when the time is right. There are a number of our practice areas that make sense in Northern California.” Heil is a 1988 graduate of UCLA Law School who immediately started in Dechert’s Philadelphia office and was elevated to partner status only seven years after joining the firm’s real estate securitization practice. In 1998, one of his principal clients, Capital America, successfully recruited him to become its chief legal officer. A subsidiary of Japanese investment bank Nomura, Capital America was the largest commercial mortgage lender in the United States. Capital was supposed to spin off from Nomura, but when that fell through, the 400-employee company was shut down and liquidated in 1999. Heil joined another commercial mortgage lender until he decided to take some time off last November. But when the Dechert opportunity arose, Heil said, he was excited at the chance to work with old friends while heading a new office. “We’re going to grow the office in a way that makes sense,” Heil said. “There’s enormous potential growth here. California is the fifth-largest economy in the world, so we might start with five lawyers, but we’ll grow the practice fast because we won’t just be focusing on California-based clients. We will have a national practice here.” Because the Bay Area economy has been in such a poor state since the dot-com crash, finding office space will not be difficult. But Heil said it’s certainly not the right time to branch out the firm’s technology business practice to Northern California. At the behest of clients in the financial services industry in April 2000, Dechert opened an office in Newport Beach, Calif. – 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles – in a similar fashion. Boston-based financial services practice group chairman Sheldon Jones is the managing partner. The Newport Beach office opening quenched the desire of clients such as PIMCO, Pacific Life and Irvine-based chip manufacturer Intersil Holdings to have local legal representation. Like Dechert, Reed Smith has spent much of the past year searching for a way to expand into California. Over the summer, rumors surfaced linking the Pittsburgh-based firm and Oakland, Calif.’s largest law firm, 230-attorney Crosby Heafey Roach & May, as potential merger partners. Unlike Dechert, Reed Smith is apparently not looking to start small and grow organically but rather is seeking a larger merger partner.

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