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At its height about a decade ago, Morrison & Foerster’s Orange County office had roughly 50 attorneys. Today, it has less than half that number, and the departures may continue as the firm focuses on other markets. Just last week, rainmaker Robert Naeve, who was the chairman of the Orange County office’s labor and employment practice, took off for Jones Day with partner Steven Zadravecz, and associates may be following. Some say they left MoFo because the firm has been de-emphasizing the struggling office. Craig Mordock, a corporate and securities lawyer, said he took off for Bingham McCutchen late last month, in part because he wanted to find a firm with a strong commitment to the region. Mordock said he began considering a lateral move a few months ago, when MoFo asked its corporate team to relocate. “MoFo is really focused on the firm’s key markets, and, for some reason, they’d like to not have any distractions,” Mordock said. “I disagree with that because I don’t think Orange County is a distraction – it’s a vibrant business community with a lot of firms doing well here.” Naeve said he weighed similar considerations when deciding to make his move. “There were so many more things in Orange County that Jones Day has to offer that MoFo didn’t,” said Naeve, a labor and employment lawyer who had been at MoFo for 18 years. “The office here is growing like a weed, and the environment is just wonderful.” Morrison & Foerster’s chairman, Keith Wetmore, acknowledged that the office has been struggling, and that the firm has moved some key attorneys out of Orange County and into other markets – “centers of excellence that needed their help.” He said the firm isn’t engaging in a full retreat from Orange County. “We have not set out to exit the O.C. market. We have some very good clients there that we continue to serve from there and elsewhere,” he said. “It’s always difficult when you have an office that’s contracted for a time. We’re working to develop a strategy going forward.” Other law firm leaders say MoFo’s decision to move top attorneys out of Orange County is a sign that the firm never got a strong hold on a competitive but lucrative market. Market observers, including partners at other O.C. offices and former MoFo partners, say the firm never got the critical mass of corporate attorneys necessary to have a flourishing corporate practice there. “It’s always been a market dominated by firms like Stradling [Yocca Carlson & Rauth], with Latham, Gibson and O’Melveny picking up the high-end work,” said a former Morrison & Foerster partner. “MoFo wasn’t able to get the high-end work, and their business model never supported emerging stages companies like Stradling.” MoFo isn’t the only one that has struggled to find its place in Orange County. Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman has also experienced declining numbers in the county, something that prompted Chairman James Rishwain to tell The Recorder in 2007 that the firm was re-examining its strategy there. Rishwain was traveling on Tuesday and did not return a call for comment before deadline. Gibson uses its Orange County office for global clients, local clients – mostly, large local companies – and as a launching pad for San Diego, where it doesn’t have an office, said Jeffrey Reeves, Gibson’s co-partner-in-charge in the Orange County office. That’s in contrast to MoFo which has a strong San Diego presence, Reeves pointed out. Gibson will have its largest summer class – 16 – in that O.C. office this summer, Reeves said, adding “We’re an upper-tier firm and we’re managing to stay busy.” Latham, too, has been increasing its presence in Orange County, said partner Charles Ruck. The firm’s 80-lawyer office there is about one-third high-end work for local clients, such as Broadcom Corp. and Edwards Lifesciences; one-third servicing national clients like JPMorgan and Harrah’s Entertainment; and one-third O.C. matters that aren’t necessarily high-end, such as small public companies or late-stage private ones. “It would be challenging to have a vibrant, growing office if you didn’t have a foot in each of those three buckets,” Ruck said. But that doesn’t mean plenty of firms aren’t up for the challenge. San Diego-based Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, which opened in 2007, is looking to move in where other firms are moving out. “Some other firms have decided to deemphasize real estate and land use – that creates more opportunity for us,” said John Murphy, the partner in charge of the new Luce office in Irvine. With new entrants and other players growing, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton O.C. partner Robert Beall said the competitive landscape is heightening in the region. Retreats like MoFo and Pillsbury are the casualties of that. “I think more firms are going to come down here and compete,” he said. “And I think you’re going to see more fallout.”

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