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Like a California Beemer spinning its wheels in Potomac River swampland, San Francisco-based Heller Ehrman just can’t seem to gain traction in Washington. Last year, the firm’s D.C. head count grew by only one attorney. This year, the office is down eight, from 57 attorneys to 49, a 14 percent decline. And, unlike many of its West Coast counterparts, Heller has been stuck in mud inside the Beltway for awhile. In 2003, the Washington office had 48 attorneys. It grew a bit to 51 in 2004, and a bit more in 2005 to 56. Though the firm is naturally better acclimated to its home out west, there are also signs of trouble firm-wide. Earlier this month the firm suffered two major losses. Partner Patricia Gillette, who helped anchor Heller’s San Francisco office, jumped to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Gillette, who was a co-chairwoman of the labor and employment practice, brought another partner and four associates with her. Jerry Marks, Heller’s former Los Angeles managing partner, has signed on at Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy. In September, the firm also laid off 65 support staff members. Though the 700-lawyer Heller is still considered a solid firm, its recent losses and its moribund Washington numbers have some observers wondering what is ailing the California power. “One of the common challenges that West Coast-based firms, most of which are not as regulatory-focused, routinely face, is integrating themselves into the unique regulatory-focused nature of the Washington, D.C., market,” says Dan Binstock, a legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search. Geoffrey Aronow, Heller’s D.C. managing partner, appears well aware of the obstacles that face any firm looking to expand in the D.C. market. “We’ve not been adding people just to add people. The notion of the office is to grow in areas that have a Washington orientation that fit with the general profile of the firm,” Aronow says. He says his office is working to leverage the firm’s highly regarded intellectual property practice by focusing more on niche areas, such as handling issues before the International Trade Commission. By developing such specialties, Aronow believes that his office can offer a valuable Washington capability tailored to firm needs. Aronow adds that the losses sustained by the Washington office this year came in single-lawyer, one-off departures, making them easier to deal with than if an entire practice group had broken away. Compared to other California-based firms, though, there is no denying that Heller’s D.C. outfit looks pretty anemic. Los Angeles-based O’Melveny & Myers’ D.C. office grew more than 14 percent, up to 166 attorneys from last year’s 145. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe of San Francisco reported more than a 9 percent climb in its D.C. roster, from 76 to 83 lawyers. L.A. native Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker had a standout year, rocketing to 141 attorneys from 112 � a nearly 26 percent increase. And of course, there’s the California king, L.A.-based Latham & Watkins, which checked in with a nearly 16 percent increase, upping its D.C. roster from 241 last year to 279. Aronow, though, points to another recent development at Heller. The firm is slated to open a Shanghai, China, office in January. Aronow projects this will have a positive impact on his own office, especially considering the high-profile 2006 hire of Sturgis Sobin, former head of Miller & Chevalier’s international trade practice. Aronow says Sobin, now a partner in Heller’s IP and international groups, and his colleagues have been working closely with clients in China. Expanding the firm’s Asia presence, Aronow says, will provide “a piece of the puzzle” in terms of bolstering Heller’s technology, IP, and international trade work, much of which is centered in the D.C. office. Still, in comparison to the rest of the California crew, Heller will have to gain some serious traction if it hopes to catch up.
Marisa McQuilken can be contacted at [email protected].

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