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First, Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich had two hometowns — San Diego and Palo Alto. Then Silicon Valley became the hottest address in law. So San Diego went bye-bye, and suddenly, Gray Cary was calling Palo Alto its home base. These days, ask Gray Cary where its hometown is and the firm sniffs, “We’re national — we don’t have a hometown.” That may have something to do with technology being as dead as a party supply store the day after New Year’s. But it’s an issue firms all over have struggled with. In an age of increasing competition, firms don’t want to be seen as regional rubes tied down to one location. Some are aggressively marketing themselves as “national” or “international” firms in an attempt to shrug off the stigma of a central location. It’s a move designed to market firms to a wider base of clients and to signal to lawyers in outposts that they are an integral part of the operation. “We came to the conclusion that trying to identify a single geographic location as a so-called headquarters was fiction,” said J. Terence O’Malley, Gray Cary’s chairman. “We have no office that represents a majority of lawyers.” Of course, 84 percent of Gray Cary’s 425 lawyers work in California offices. But the firm points to its 18 lawyers in Washington, D.C., and a cadre of attorneys in Seattle and Austin, Texas, as proof that it’s national. The firm is also about to move its Palo Alto lawyers into the University Circle complex in East Palo Alto. By calling itself a national firm, Gray Cary saves itself from having to become based in what is generally seen as a rough-and-tumble burg. But for other Bay Area firms, the home city of record can signal a real identity crisis. Consider Thelen Reid & Priest, the product of a 1998 cross-country merger. After the merger, Thelen had senior managers on both coasts. But San Francisco was called home because Richard Gary, the firm’s longtime chairman, was based here. In March, the firm toyed with the idea of calling New York home after Thomas Igoe Jr., who is based in the Big Apple, won the firm’s election to chairman. Thelen dumped the idea, however, when faced with the prospect of being compared to other New York firms, some of which are national heavyweights. Still, some partners, like John Heisse II, the managing partner of the San Francisco office, consider the firm national. “It’s always been the intent of the firm since the merger not to have a headquarters,” Heisse said. “There’s really no center of gravity.” That’s not to say every firm is hometown shopping or is fretting over the prospect of a less-than-sexy address. Some firms, especially in Silicon Valley, have simply followed their office space. When Fenwick & West recently moved its Palo Alto office into a modern, new office building in Mountain View, it didn’t balk at becoming a Mountain View-based firm. Gordon Davidson, Fenwick chairman, said he expected to miss his firm’s old Palo Alto address, which had been home to the firm for years. But so far, he has no regrets. “If anything, it reaffirms our image as a Silicon Valley firm,” Davidson said. Part of that may have something to do with the down-home quality of the neighborhood. A handful of firm clients are based nearby, and some of them walk to the firm’s offices for meetings, Davidson said. Plus, he bumps into his clients at the nearby deli and other lunch spots on Castro Street, the main drag in Mountain View. Mountain View wasn’t considered as hip as Palo Alto during the dot-com boom years. But Davidson said, “Two years ago, it may have mattered. It doesn’t matter now.” Some firms clearly don’t care about the hometown distinction. With 23 offices worldwide, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom could easily pass for international. But the firm is still formally a New York firm. No one thinks about it, said Kenton King, the managing partner of Skadden’s two Bay Area offices. Most of the firm’s partners consider the firm’s headquarters to be anywhere they happen to be based, he said. “Maybe it’s a branding issue but I don’t think we ever considered it terribly important,” King said. “In each market we operate, we endeavor to be very much a part of the local market and community.” Bradford Hildebrandt, chairman of law firm consultant Hildebrandt International, said dropping a headquarters has become par for the course. Firms are spreading out and plucking partners from myriad offices to serve in management. “There are a lot of firms that don’t want a headquarters,” Hildebrandt said. “Part of it can be associated with the fact that the firm’s growth has placed it in a situation where its former headquarters isn’t its largest office anymore.” Firms are also tailoring their message to their own partners as much as to clients when cutting formal ties to a single city, Hildebrandt said. Managers want to make partners throughout the firm to feel like they have some say and that power isn’t concentrated in the city where the firm got started. “It’s more a change in the way firms have developed in a geographic way in the last 10 years,” Hildebrandt said. Peter Zeughauser, a law firm consultant with the Zeughauser Group in Newport Beach, said firms can essentially do what they want when it comes to their home address. “There is no magic formula to determine if a firm is national or not,” Zeughauser said. And “being a national firm is the next best thing to being a Wall Street firm.”

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