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As the poster child of the Internet bubble economy, San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison has its share of envious vultures waiting for the inevitable fall. Firm leaders make a strong case for why their business is just fine (” Life After Dot-com Death“). But apparently the optimism hasn’t seeped into Brobeck’s branch office in Washington, D.C. After getting off to a remarkably quick start, the 2-year-old office is now struggling with morale problems caused by a sharp decline in corporate work, angst about retooling dealmakers as litigators, and attrition due in part to personality clashes. Perhaps there is no better illustration of the problems than this: The leader of the Washington, D.C., business and technology practice who had come in laterally from a Baltimore firm was reported to the D.C. bar for practicing without local bar credentials. Who turned him in? One of his partners. The incident hasn’t sidelined Stephen Riddick. About the same time the licensing lapse came to light in January, he was named the office’s managing partner. Shortly thereafter his accuser left the firm. But the mini-mutiny shows how far the office has fallen since barely a year ago, when Brobeck chairman Tower Snow Jr. lauded it as being the busiest in the firm and he green-lighted a hiring spree of corporate attorneys. Riddick’s corporate group grew to 28 lawyers from 19, bringing the office’s lawyer head count to a peak of 39 in August 2000 (the D.C. office count now stands at 33, 18 of them corporate). The office was buried in work — and not just any old work. Brobeck managed to nab more public offerings in the region — handling the IPOs for HotJobs.com Ltd. and Vastera Inc. — than any other firm, including its California-based rivals Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and Cooley Godward. At the height of the boom, Brobeck even decided that the D.C. branch office needed its own branch, in Reston, Va., the suburban mecca for emerging tech companies. That was then. By late 2000, Riddick found himself with too many high-priced associates and not enough work to go around. “It was considered a good month if you billed 100 hours,” says a lawyer familiar with the office. Kevin Lavin, the partner in charge of Brobeck’s Reston office, confirms the 100-hour-per-month billing slump. But, he says, “Those numbers are correcting themselves” as people leave. Associates are expected to bill 1,950 hours this year, or about 160 a month. “We’re pretty close to budget [now] but not quite there,” says Lavin. Brobeck has a built-in safety net — stock drops beget shareholder litigation, which plays to the firm’s other traditional strength — but this requires retooling corporate associates for litigation work. Ten associates firmwide have made the jump, says Snow. In D.C. two corporate lawyers are now working part time for the litigation group, says Riddick. Not everyone was happy to trade IPO magic for discovery paperwork. One associate in Riddick’s office decided to leave the firm rather than make the switch, and others found the retooling effort another cause for anxiety. “There was a fear of layoffs,” says one person familiar with Brobeck’s D.C. office. Associates started eyeing the door. In a four-month span, six associates and two partners in the D.C. corporate practice handed in their resignations to Riddick. When the long-awaited opening of Lavin’s Reston, Va., office happened in March, it was four months after its previously scheduled launch date and — with five lawyers occupying space designed for 20 — accompanied by little fanfare. Riddick’s popularity with his colleagues was on shaky ground even before the market crashed, according to three sources. He cemented a reputation for arrogance by once announcing at a meeting that he had received a seven-figure offer from a New York firm, and bragging that if he left, 10 associates would follow him out the door. “I remember laughing, thinking it was funny he thought he could get 10 associates,” says one lawyer. Riddick says he never made the statement. “It is untrue that I could take associates out of here. Quite frankly I brought a lot of associates into Brobeck because I thought they had better opportunities here,” he says. In any case, the news of his status with the bar circulated quickly in the office earlier this year. Riddick, who had moved in March 1999 from the Baltimore office of what was then Piper & Marbury, should have applied for admission to the bar within nine months of his arrival in D.C. Instead he waited nearly two years, filing an application in late January that may not be resolved until this summer. It wasn’t for a lack of urging — even Brobeck’s Snow says he pressed Riddick to take care of it. “Would I have preferred that Steve submit his application more promptly? Yes, I do,” says Snow. “Am I concerned that Steve won’t be admitted? No.” Riddick declines to discuss the matter. “This is an incredibly personal situation for me,” he says. “[The application] has been filed; it is being considered and evaluated.” By the time he is a D.C. lawyer in good standing, the office intrigue may have subsided. But colleagues wounded by Riddick’s working style don’t sound like the forgiving types. One lawyer familiar with the D.C. office says that Riddick would sometimes blame associates when things went wrong. In tough times — and these are — everyone is tempted to play the finger-pointing game. Of course some firms will have to learn the rules faster than others.

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