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Lawyers at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith’s San Francisco outpost have traditionally been entitled to the office’s prime real estate: a window office. These days however, a couple of new associates are toiling in interior rooms until the firm takes over its third floor of office space in October. A lack of space for lawyers is a problem few Bay Area firms have faced the past few years. But while hiring remains in check at many firms, Lewis Brisbois’ San Francisco office is experiencing a growth spurt. The office has added 18 attorneys in the past five months — a 40 percent increase in lawyer headcount — giving Lewis Brisbois a total of 62 attorneys in the Bay Area. Firmwide, Lewis Brisbois has doubled its ranks in the last three years, from roughly 200 attorneys in 2000 to some 400 lawyers today. The growth is especially noteworthy given that Lewis Brisbois’ roots are in insurance defense, a high-volume, low-margin practice that sits somewhere near the bottom of the legal caste in terms of profits and prestige. “They’re the lawyers who are driving the Chevrolets, not the Mercedes,” says Los Angeles legal consultant Steve Barrett. The salary for a first-year associate is around $70,000, according to a former Lewis Brisbois associate, significantly below firms like Reed Smith Crosby Heafey and Thelen Reid & Priest, where rookie lawyers earn $125,000 starting salaries. The firm won’t disclose salary information, but says it has a lot to offer associates. “I think associates, especially in this day and age, would be particularly interested in working in a firm where there’s stability, where growth is taking place, and where it’s a friendly and collegial atmosphere,” says San Francisco Managing Partner Duane Musfelt. “My sense is that the dollars and cents, while still important, are not necessarily the end all that it may have once been for a number of associates.” According to Musfelt and other lawyers at the firm, Lewis Brisbois’ strong litigation focus has allowed it to stay busy even in a poor economy. In addition to feeding off a steady base of insurance defense work, the firm has redoubled its effort to branch out into related practices. Five of the new San Francisco hires work in the firm’s products liability group, four focus on professional liability, and three are employment law attorneys. The San Francisco office’s employment law practice, which in 2001 consisted of just two attorneys, now counts three partners and three associates, and handles employment litigation such as discrimination, wrongful termination and wage-and-hour suits. Name partner Robert Lewis says that while the seven-office firm started as a Los Angeles insurance defense shop, it’s been diversified for years. But he acknowledges that more than 50 percent of the firm’s gross income is in some way related to the insurance industry. In fact, many of the firm’s practices are closely related to insurance. A great deal of Lewis Brisbois’ employment law caseload comes as a result of companies that have so-called employment practices litigation insurance. When the company has an employment-related legal matter, its insurance carrier refers the work to a designated law firm such as Lewis Brisbois. The EPLI work is considered low-margin at some law firms, but it actually constitutes a specialty practice at Lewis Brisbois, carrying higher billing rates than some of the firm’s bread and butter work, according to a partner at the firm. The growth in attorney headcount is also an opportunity for Lewis Brisbois to address other aspects of its business. The infusion of new lawyers — 16 of the 18 are associates — rectifies the San Francisco office’s abysmal leverage, which until recently had been top-heavy with almost two partners for every associate. The partner to associate ratio in San Francisco is now roughly 1 to 1. “I wouldn’t say it’s designed with that in mind,” says Musfelt, “but the work is there to be done so we’re filling that void that exists through hiring.”

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