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LOS ANGELES � A law student posted the question on an online message board last month: “Anything going wrong with Alschuler these days?” The well-regarded shop had dropped out of his school’s on-campus interviewing program, and the poster wondered why. Surf the postings and you’ll see similar queries about other fixtures of Westside entertainment law, like Christensen, Glaser, Fink, Jacobs, Weil & Shapiro and Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger. Those two firms have been roiled by the charges against celebrity PI Anthony Pellicano. Terry Christensen was indicted earlier this year, and his firm has seen an exodus of attorneys. Greenberg Glusker star partner Bert Fields hasn’t been charged, but the case has cast him under a cloud of suspicion, and his firm has endured some high-profile defections. At Alschuler, the instability has nothing to do with Pellicano, but instead stems from a clash of strong personalities. As someone on the message boards was quick to point out, the 85-lawyer firm is expected to split in two in the coming months, since two name partners expect to take dozens of attorneys and join up with a New York firm, leaving behind name partner Marshall Grossman and his sizable band of lawyers. Taken together, the movement represents a major reshuffle of Hollywood’s Rolodex. The uncertainty surrounding the futures of these three major Westside entertainment firms has led to unprecedented levels of lateral movement throughout Los Angeles, and to the launch of a handful of star-studded boutiques. Out-of-town firms are feeding on the uncertainty too, moving in to poach key partners. “By far and away, there is no region that has had more movement [than L.A.] this year,” says recruiter Larry Watanabe, who adds that most of the activity “is centered in West L.A.” It started with the Pellicano tremors, he says, “but that was just the tip of the iceberg.” But there’s one thing that unites these firms. “You can’t help but notice that the three Westside firms that have had problems this year are all run, controlled and proliferated by one person who has a death grip on the firm,” says Dan Hatch, head of the partner practice in Southern California at Major, Lindsey & Africa. All three are so-called first-generation firms still closely associated with their ironfisted � and aging � founders: Christensen, Fields and Grossman. Industry experts say it’s common for such firms to trip up as it becomes time to pass the baton to a second generation of leaders. Outside events, like the Pellicano indictments, may speed tensions to the surface. Shortly after Terry Christensen’s wiretapping indictment, name partner Louis “Skip” Miller left with several associates and created Miller Barondess. At Greenberg Glusker, where Fields continues to preside as patriarch, top partners Dale Kinsella and Howard Weitzman left with a group to form Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert. Transferring power is a common problem for first-generation firms because of the characteristics inherent in leaders who create them, says Robert Fortunato, a law firm consultant and leadership expert.
‘If you have two powerful leaders who don’t get along, it’s usually debilitating.’

Peter Zeughauser

Starting a firm takes “a fierce level of independence,” he says. Those that do it can’t be expected to give up power easily. Law firm founders “wake up in a crisis and see a cadre of followers, not leaders,” he says, and can’t be expected to transfer power in an orderly fashion. Sharing power doesn’t come easy either. At Alschuler, Grossman and name partner Stanton “Larry” Stein are both permanent members of the firm’s executive committee. Relations between the two have long been frosty � lawyers within the firm say the two partners rarely speak to each other. Grossman began pushing for a merger earlier this year, widening the rift between him and some partners and all but inviting out-of-town firms to come in and poach. “If you have two powerful leaders who don’t get along, it’s usually debilitating,” says law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser. “Look at Alschuler. It’s distracting to the practice, and if the disagreements are about the direction of the firm � whether a merger is appropriate � it’s important to resolve those differences.” A few months back, Steptoe & Johnson snagged a litigation partner from Christensen Glaser and five partners from Alschuler to open a Century City office. One of those lawyers, Michael Heimbold, has said talk of a merger at Alschuler was one reason he chose to look at other options. He didn’t have to look far: Over the past year, headhunters have blitzed the firm’s lawyers. “Everyone was getting calls,” Heimbold says. Indeed, most of the out-of-town firms that entered the L.A. market this year did so because they saw an opportunity in the turbulence at Alschuler, Christensen and Greenberg Glusker. “It was reactive � they thought about coming into the region when they saw the turmoil,” Watanabe says. THE NEXT GENERATION Of course, not all firms stumble. Loeb & Loeb, one of the biggest firms on the Westside, with 250 lawyers, has been around for 100 years. Others point as an example to Manatt Phelps & Phillips, which was founded in 1965. While all three name partners are still at the 325-lawyer firm, none is in a formal leadership role. And if you gauge success by a firm’s ability to hold onto talent, Manatt is one of the winners, says recruiter Watanabe. “For a firm of its size, and given the new entrants and changes in the marketplace, Manatt has lost a lot less partners than others,” he says. “And they are an absolute prime target � they are one of the last remaining free-standing firms a national firm would potentially target.” Part of the reason Manatt has successfully transitioned is that business generation, as well as profits, are more evenly distributed among partners, Watanabe says. “It’s dramatically different than Alschuler, where there’s a couple major rainmakers at the top and below that a wide group of people that don’t generate business on their own,” he says. “That makes a firm vulnerable.” Managers need to identify younger partners and groom them for leadership roles, Fortunato says. Senior partners need to share work and client relationships. Lance Jurich, the partner in charge of Loeb & Loeb’s litigation department in Los Angeles, says his firm has made a deliberate choice to put younger attorneys in management. Stuart Liner, the 44-year-old co-founder and CEO of Liner Yankelevitz Sunshine & Regenstreif, says he’s already taking steps to ensure he and his firm of almost 100 attorneys don’t face a problematic transfer down the road. Liner says he makes sure that no client brings in more than 4 percent of the firm’s revenue, and he actively identifies future leaders. “I learned that even at 44, I have to already be planning for a transition and identifying leaders,” he says. “If you wait until you’re 55 or 60, you’re either going to have to roll in with someone else and lose your legacy, or keep pulling a lot of weight.” Or keep answering questions like this one, which appeared on a message board last week, when the online conversation turned to the Christensen firm: “What’s going on at this firm lately?” the poster wrote. “Is it stabilized…?”

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