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A bunch of partners at San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison may have set a world’s record. They all joined Brobeck out of law school in 1972 and stayed with the firm as it grew from 72 attorneys to more than 700. The six lawyers — along with others from the class of ’72 that came to Brobeck a little later — celebrated their 30th anniversary May 2. “Just like a sports team, we have a lot of free agents,” said partner G. Larry Engel. “It’s unusual to have people play on one team their whole career.” Stephen Snyder, who was chairman of Brobeck from 1996 to ’98, said he didn’t think there was a major firm in the United States that could claim to have retained an entire class for 10 or 20 years, let alone 30. The six lawyers who joined Brobeck in 1972 actually started together as summer clerks at the firm the year before. They include Snyder, Engel, Stephen Finn, Paul Finigan, Richard Plumridge and Luther Orton. The class of 1972 also includes James Burns Jr., Anthony Garvin, Michael Stanley and Kelly Wooster, who joined Brobeck in 1967 but left the following year for a four-year stint in the Army’s legal corps. The group straddles two eras in law firm history: the golden days when the practice was more of a professional club and the current epoch in which law has become a business. When they joined Brobeck the firm had about two dozen partners in an office on San Francisco’s Sutter Street. While associates billed about 1,350 hours a year — compared to today’s level of 1,950 — they put in long hours. Snyder said it was common for associates to work until 10 or 11 p.m. and through the weekend. “We used to carouse with partners, then play midnight basketball and drag ourselves in in the morning,” he said. At that time young attorneys didn’t make much money. Engel said that for years he and his colleagues graded bar exams to bring in extra cash. “You’d get $500 for writing a model answer and a buck a book,” he said. “It was a painful thing to read those exams, but that’s what everyone needed to do to pay the rent.” While associates were always hustling, partners back then had a more leisurely life. “At 2 p.m. they’d be at the Commerce Club playing dominoes,” Snyder said. “I think a lot of us stayed here with the expectation that by the age of 50 we’d be over playing dominoes.” Instead they saw the profession undergo a metamorphosis that ended such carefree hours. Snyder said a shift in the practice came about after 1980. That year, he recalled, Brobeck had one of its first partner retreats and invited a consultant to come along to help the firm lay out its goals and objectives. When the consultant mentioned that a lot of people set a goal of being profitable, Snyder said, “everyone looked at each other thinking ‘who’d want to do that?’” As Brobeck turned its eye to the bottom line and grew in size, the environment changed. Snyder said that when he was an associate he worked for every partner at the firm. “I knew everybody and had a sense of it being my firm,” he said. “Now associates see a piece of the firm so they don’t feel proprietary about it. It’s a stop along the way for them.” But young attorneys at the firm today also don’t have the same job security that his generation had. Snyder recalled a meeting he and his fellow associates had with a senior partner. “Someone asked him, ‘What is the chance we’ll make partner?’ and he replied, ‘We expect you all will make partner or we wouldn’t have picked you.’” “Now when associates sit in the room for ‘what’s going to happen with me’ talks,” he said, the question of whether they will make partner depends on how much business the firm is generating. And, he added, associates aren’t sure that making partner “is what they want in the first place.” The class of ’72 is holding a reunion at a rough period in the firm’s history. Last week the firm announced its third round of associate cuts. The layoffs came as the firm has seen a sharp drop-off in corporate work and a plunge in profits. Several partners have left the firm in the past four months, and the legal community has been buzzing about other possible high-level defections from the firm. But the long-time partners take such events in stride. “The crew has been through lots of down cycles before,” Engel said. “If they haven’t shaken us loose in the past I wouldn’t expect them to now.” Finn said their long-term friendships have helped them weather difficult times. “Over 30 years everybody goes through ups and downs where their practice is working or not,” Finn said. “We’ve been there to cushion one another as we went through that.”

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