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Seventy-nine years ago, Herman Phleger sat in an office at the old Crocker Bank building on Market Street with Peter Dunne and William Brobeck and plotted to oust partners from their firm. It was a hard-knuckled financial move designed to boost the firm’s profits, and it didn’t happen without a fight. As local legend has it, the ousted partners — literally locked out of the Crocker offices — grabbed a fire ax and chopped down a door to get their case files. Dumping fellow partners isn’t a particularly nice thing to do. But then again, the firm that would eventually become Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison was never known for its warm and fuzzy qualities. As the firm’s own 1996 book on its history says, Brobeck was often referred to as “Browbeat, Flog & Harrassem.” Lawyers are described as “icebergs,” and money was so paramount that one of the partners even helped write a book on economics called “The Capitalist Manifesto.” Given that history, the nastiness around Brobeck’s collapse shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Rank-and-file partners went into last week’s all-hands meetings thinking they were about to join Philadelphia-based Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Instead, they learned for the first time that Brobeck would disband. “I was just taken by surprise,” one partner said last week. “I just had a rosier picture walking into the meeting.” The end was brutal and fast. No vote, no discussion, just a fire ax to the partnership. Six hundred staff members are being shown the door without severance, and they spent most of the week wondering if they would even have health benefits. Bankers are hounding the firm’s every financial move, and they have told firm managers to close up shop two weeks earlier than first expected. It’s hard not to empathize with the technology staffer who summed up his feelings about Brobeck with one succinct, angry phrase as he left the firm’s San Francisco headquarters: “Screw this place.” The seeds of this collapse were obviously sown during the reign of former chairman Tower Snow Jr. and his management team. They added hundreds of lawyers, thousands of square feet of office space — and by extension, millions of dollars of debt. Viewed through the lens of a shattered tech economy, the unfettered expansion seems like folly. But where was the outrage from partners when Snow and company were spending like sailors on shore leave? Maybe it was fear of retribution that kept them quiet. Or perhaps, they were gagged by the $1.1 million in profits per partner they were earning at the time. In fact, revolution only began to stir when profits sagged to $660,000, and Snow didn’t react by ruthlessly cutting associates and staff. If Brobeck’s profits had slid to, say, $900,000, does anyone seriously think Snow would have been toppled? The truth is that cash has always been king at Brobeck. You rarely heard high-minded platitudes from its lawyers about practicing for sheer love of the law. Privately, they often complained of the hard-charging atmosphere and tough financial goals managers set. Given those facts, it’s hard to eulogize this firm with a soft, loving tribute. While one feels sympathy for those who are experiencing the turmoil of its demise, Brobeck was one tough old bird — cold, calculating and not very nice. It ends its days just as it began in the 1920s, with angry, dispirited lawyers and staff and bitter battles over money. Maybe that’s the way it should be. Brobeck’s fall will enter the lore of the legal community just like its equally hard-nosed rise. Perhaps, somewhere, Herman Phleger is smiling.

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