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For those in Washington feeling like the ugly stepsister in the face of two New York-California law firm couples at the altar, there’s good news. California does care about the D.C. legal market and is strengthening its commitment. Amid news last week that the executive committees of San Francisco’s Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and New York’s Dewey Ballantine had gotten engaged and, earlier this month, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Cooley Godward had snagged litigation boutique Kronish Lieb Weiner & Hellman, it was easy to ignore California’s more subtle signs of affection for the District. But of the 10 California-based firms with a significant presence in the D.C. metropolitan legal market, nine of them increased the head count in their metro-area offices, according to Legal Times‘ annual survey of the D.C. metropolitan area’s 150 largest law offices. The survey measures head count as of April 1, 2006. So what’s behind these bicoastal courtships and increased head counts in Washington? California firms are among the most expansive in terms of their growth strategies, and many have adopted a national or international model rather than the boutique approach, says Peter Zeughauser, a California-based legal consultant. And although many of California’s most successful firms have focused on establishing their national platforms for a couple of decades, the top firms have now sharpened their focus on critical markets like New York and Washington, according to John Childers, a San Francisco-based consultant with the Hildebrandt Institute, a professional-services consulting firm. While New York still tops the list of markets in terms of firms’ strategic-growth aspirations, Washington is No. 2, says Michael Short, a vice president in Hildebrandt’s D.C. office. “Many have emphasized New York and D.C. to the point where clients are starting to perceive them as New York or D.C. firms,” he says. In the pursuit of a truly national reputation, many of the California firms are quick to point out just how far they have moved away from their Golden State roots. For example, Eric Bernthal, the managing partner of Latham & Watkins’ D.C. office, says the firm “is not L.A.-centric in any way” and notes that the firm’s New York office is its biggest. Barbara Brown, the chair of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker’s D.C. office, says the firm is truly “geography-blind.” For example, Seth Zachary, the firm’s chairman, is located in New York, while its managing partner, Greg Nitzkowski, resides in Los Angeles, and James Wareham, the chairman of the firm’s litigation department, is in the firm’s D.C. office. Brian Busey, managing partner of Morrison & Foerster’s D.C. and Northern Virginia offices, notes that the firm’s chairman, Keith Wetmore, moved to New York from San Francisco as part of the firm’s commitment to growing its East Coast practice. This dynamism and willingness to adapt may be due to the fact that California firms are less constrained by tradition, lawyers with California firms say. “There is an openness and an ability to think outside the box,” says Paul, Hastings’ Brown. All six of the most profitable California firms, with profits per partner of at least $1 million, grew by at least 10 percent in Washington, a far faster pace than the 2.3 percent that was the average growth rate for the D.C. metropolitan area’s largest law offices as surveyed by Legal Times. In fact, Orrick actually grew at a much faster clip, catapulting itself 25 places up the rankings by upping its head count in D.C. by 38 percent. About half of that growth was due to Orrick’s acquisition of Swidler & Berlin’s prized 10-person bankruptcy team, led by Roger Frankel. The team, which specializes in asbestos work, made the leap to Orrick when it was conflicted out of Swidler’s March 2006 merger with Boston-based Bingham McCutchen. Orrick and Swidler had been in merger talks in 2004. If the merger between Orrick and New York’s Dewey Ballantine goes through, the combined firm’s D.C. offices would have more than 130 attorneys, which would likely make it one of the area’s 30 largest offices next year. Orrick and Dewey announced last week that their executive committees recommended the approval of the merger to their partnerships. Both firms’ partnerships are expected to vote on the deal by the end of the year. If successful, the merger would create a firm with 1,500 lawyers worldwide and revenues of approximately $1 billion, which could place it in the top 10 of the national AmLaw 100 rankings. The firms’ D.C. offices have distinct practices with little overlap. Orrick’s D.C. office has prominent structured-finance and project-finance practices, while Dewey’s D.C. office is perhaps best known for its international trade and energy practices. Orrick’s chief executive, Ralph Baxter Jr., has been at Orrick’s helm for 16 years, during which he has overseen the firm’s transformation from a primarily California-based domestic firm to one with a significant international presence. He says Dewey’s international trade practice is particularly significant for a firm with Orrick’s global reach. FAST GROWTH Los Angeles-based Paul, Hastings grew by 18 percent, bringing its D.C. office up to 112 lawyers, growing more than twice as fast as the firm overall, which grew about 7 percent in the same time period, according to Brown. She says the office’s litigation, commercial-fraud, political risk insurance, and internal-investigation practices have expanded the most. “We have grown faster than we thought we would,” Brown says, and she highlights that the firm is still busy bringing new people on board, including a patent litigation group from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, led by Larry Gotts and former Department of Homeland Security official Daniel Brown. Three other firms with Los Angeles roots — Latham & Watkins, O’Melveny & Myers, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher — all boosted the number of lawyers in their D.C. offices by a little more than 10 percent. Interestingly, all three posted similar profits per partner — in the $1.6 million range, according to the May 2006 American Lawyer survey. The Bay Area’s Morrison & Foerster also grew by a little more than 10 percent in the District, but its smaller Northern Virginia outpost lost about 12 percent of its lawyers. Several of these firms have made their D.C. offices the staging ground for their national litigation practices. “Washington is a great talent market for litigators,” says John Beisner, managing partner of O’Melveny & Myers’ D.C. office. Moreover, because a lot of multidistrict complex litigation is assigned to the mid-Atlantic region, he adds, Washington makes a good East Coast toehold. Meanwhile, the D.C. offices of smaller California firms, including Cooley Godward, San Francisco-based Thelen Reid & Priest and San Francisco-based Heller Ehrman, added lawyers to their D.C. offices at a more measured pace. But Joseph Conroy, the partner in charge of Cooley’s D.C. and Reston, Va., offices, says he expects the firm’s recent merger with New York’s Kronish Lieb to bolster its efforts to grow its recently opened 26-person D.C. operation. The marriage, which became effective Oct. 1, fulfilled the firm’s longtime goal of establishing a substantial New York presence in order to reposition itself as a national firm and move beyond its traditional tech-sector work. Conroy says having a stronger footprint in New York is going to help with the D.C. office’s recruiting by attracting lateral partners who would have been reluctant to join a firm without a strong New York presence. But, those who are still in the giddy honeymoon stage of a merger don’t always remember that marriage isn’t always easy. In fact, the only California firm to have decreased its head count was Pillsbury, the product of a 2005 tie-up between prominent San Francisco and Washington firms. The firm shed 6.3 percent in its D.C. office and 8.3 percent in its Northern Virginia outpost, after bleeding 11.5 percent and 39.6 percent, respectively, in those offices last year.
Alexia Garamfalvi can be contacted at [email protected].

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