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Several of the nation’s largest law firms have peeled back the “Orange Curtain” to reveal a lucrative market just south of Los Angeles. Since 2000, at least 14 major law firms have opened offices in Orange County, one of the most populous and fastest growing counties in California whose borders have been dubbed lightheartedly as the “Orange Curtain” by Los Angeles residents. Earlier this month, San Diego-based Luce Forward Hamilton & Scripps opened an office in Irvine, Calif. In April, Los Angeles-based Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro opened an office in Costa Mesa, also located in Orange County. Last year, national labor and employment boutiques Littler Mendelson and Jackson Lewis opened Orange County offices. Even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, which is based in Los Angeles, opened a branch office in Orange County two years ago. For most firms, a real estate boom and thriving technology sector have generated interest in the region. “The growth in Orange County has been outstanding,” said Todd Gordinier, a partner at Bingham McCutchen’s Costa Mesa office who moved to Orange County in 2000 from Los Angeles. “I viewed then, and I view now, the growth opportunities in Orange County, percentage-wise, were as good, or better, than anything else in Southern California.” A resurgence The resurgence contrasts with the Orange County market in the 1990s, when few firms looked to the region for growth. “The stabilization was a function of the economy in Orange County in the ’90s,” said Gordon Schaller, managing partner of the Costa Mesa office of Jeffer Mangels. “It was largely in the tank. It really slowed down. The resurgence has been largely because of technology and life sciences. Those are the two big drivers of the Orange County economy since the ’90s.” Lawyers at the Costa Mesa office of Jeffer Mangels intend to focus on intellectual property, patent, trademark and licensing, said Schaller, who joined the firm in March from Greenberg Traurig. Among the firm’s Orange County clients are technology firm Emulex Corp., which is based in Costa Mesa, he said. In 2004, Schaller founded Greenberg’s Costa Mesa office, which has quadrupled to 29 lawyers. Both firms opened in Orange County, but for different reasons, Schaller said. Greenberg Traurig “had a California strategy, recognizing California as a very substantial legal market in which they were not firmly entrenched,” he said. “Jeffer Mangels, on the other hand, had been entrenched in the California market for a long time but recognized the opportunity in Orange County to really expand their presence.” He said he anticipates having up to 50 lawyers in the next five years at Jeffer Mangels’ Costa Mesa office. In addition to technology clients, a boom in residential and commercial real estate development has prompted other firms to open in the region. “Orange County is really a Mecca for real estate development clients,” said Robert Bell, managing partner of Luce Forward, which opened its Irvine office this month. He said clients include Opus West Corp., LNR Property Corp. and D.R. Horton Inc., for which Luce Forward handles environmental and eminent domain work, contracts, litigation and construction documents. He said the Irvine office, which has six lawyers, could grow to 50 lawyers within the next couple of years. In the past, the firm serviced its Orange County clients from its Los Angeles and San Diego offices. That wasn’t too convenient, said Matt Montgomery, director of real estate development at Opus West, which has retained Luce Forward for nearly a dozen years to handle its residential and commercial projects in Orange County. “When you’re meeting face-to-face with your counsel, it’s more productive,” Montgomery said. “You can go have lunch and interact with them, versus trading voicemails and trying to find time to meet.” Hotbed of litigation Litigation in Orange County has attracted labor and employment firms, such as San Francisco-based Littler Mendelson, which opened its Irvine office last year. “Orange County has been a hotbed of litigation over the last few years,” said Fermin Llaguno, managing shareholder of Littler Mendelson’s Irvine office. “Orange County itself really does present an opportunity to open an office and deal with clients directly in the neighborhood, rather than servicing them from San Diego and L.A.” He said some of those clients are in the mortgage and health care industries. Orange County is the headquarters for several mortgage firms, including Ameriquest Mortgage Co. and ditech.com. Although Littler Mendelson has offices in Los Angeles and San Diego, the firm’s lawyers found traveling to and from Orange County increasingly difficult. “Getting from L.A. to Orange County is, although geographically not that far away, not that quick of a trip,” Llaguno said. He said Littler Mendelson plans to expand its Irvine office, which has eight people, to about 20 lawyers in the next two to three years. Gordinier, a litigator, said he joined Bingham McCutchen last year, along with six other lawyers from Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth, because the firm needed litigators, he said. Bingham gained a Costa Mesa office after acquiring Los Angeles private equity boutique Riordan & McKinzie in 2003. Gordinier said his clients also had concerns about staffing levels at his previous firm, a 100-lawyer law firm based in Newport Beach, also in Orange County. Now, he does a lot of work for medical products manufacturer Allergan Inc. and Hyundai Motor America Inc., both of which are based in Orange County, he said. Not all the litigation in Orange County is business-related. The ACLU’s Orange County branch, which has five attorneys on staff, has worked on several cases, including advocating for the free speech rights of workers at a local Home Depot and assisting in the construction of a Buddhist temple in a community with religious objections, said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. “People think of California as being very liberal because of Los Angeles and San Francisco,” she said. But Orange County is “not very liberal. And the residents don’t really have a great understanding of civil liberties.” But some experts said Orange County has limited appeal. “What you don’t see in Orange County are a bunch of New York firms. What you don’t see are Chicago firms,” said Bill Nason, a partner at Watanabe Nason Schwartz & Lippman, a California legal search firm. “Real estate and technology are the only two reasons to come to Orange County.” He said the region’s business centers have matured, with lawyers competing for the same work. And with the slowdown in the real estate market, the amount of legal work in Orange County could diminish. But several lawyers in Orange County dismissed such concerns. Llaguno, at Littler Mendelson, said a downturn that involves layoffs could increase, rather than decrease, employment litigation. “Obviously, right now, many mortgage companies and real estate companies that are headquartered here in Orange County are dealing with some challenges,” Llaguno said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they still aren’t going to be consumers of legal services.” This article originally appearedin The Recorder, a publication of ALM. �

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