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In the hours, days and weeks following Congress’ approval last month of the sweeping Sarbanes-Oxley corporate reform bill, lawyers at the nation’s largest law firms scrambled to interpret the new laws and summarize them in memoranda and advisories sent out to both existing and prospective clients. Ranging in length from three pages to 30 or more and drawing on the knowledge and skills of lawyers across practice disciplines and around the country, the scores of law firm advisories nonetheless all reach the same conclusion, often couched in exactly the same language: Please call one of our lawyers if you would like to discuss these issues further. It is hardly surprising that law firms see opportunity. Affecting securities offerings, director-and-officer liability, white collar crime and a host of other practices, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the broad area of corporate governance promise law firms something for just about everyone, and for a long time to come. The real challenge facing firms at the moment is how to capture as much of the business as possible for themselves. For many firms, the answer to this — as it was to booms in the Internet, biotechnology and telecommunications industries — is to create a new practice group, combining disparate lawyers and specialties under an easily marketable umbrella that can cross-sell the different practices. Holland & Knight was among the first out of the gate. On July 31, one day after President George W. Bush signed Sarbanes-Oxley into law, the Tampa, Fla.-based firm announced it was forming a national corporate governance practice group. Headed by Tampa-based corporate partner Michael L. Jamieson, the group counts 30 lawyers drawn from the firm’s securities, white-collar crime, tax and other practice groups in New York, Washington, D.C., Miami and elsewhere. The launch of so-called national practice groups is among the most common marketing tools law firms use to try to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Increasingly rare today are lawyers who identify themselves as simply corporate or litigation. Lawyers are as apt to practice in groups like life sciences, telecommunications or, now, corporate governance. As the name implies, such groups are intended to draw together lawyers staffing the far-flung offices of today’s mega-firms. But an added implication is that the lawyers and the firm possess expertise or knowledge that give them an edge in an industry or other non-practice-specific area. The hope is to provide clients “soup-to-nuts” service, from drafting employment agreements to negotiating mergers and acquisitions. SEEKING AN EDGE Philip H. Werner, a New York corporate partner and member of the executive committee at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, said firms like his felt compelled to market themselves in this manner to compete with the New York firms that dominate high-end transactional practices. Though it also has energy, media and other groups, Morgan Lewis’ flagship national practice group is in life sciences, meant to pull together intellectual property, litigation and corporate lawyers to work with clients in pharmaceutical, biotechnology, health care and other related industries. “A lot of big, high-profile deals are put together with the understanding that they will hire one of the marquee names,” he said. “When it opens up, they are looking for people who can talk about the industry knowledgeably.” Indeed, among the top New York capital markets and mergers-and-acquisitions firms, practice group proliferation has been more limited. For instance, Mew York’s Cravath, Swaine & Moore continues to divide the bulk of its lawyers between broad corporate and litigation departments. Despite not having media or telecommunications practices, the firm has worked on the two largest mergers in each of those industries, AOL Time Warner and MCI WorldCom — highly controversial now but greatly celebrated not long ago. San Francisco-based Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe has launched national practice groups in life sciences and energy, but Mark Vecchio, the firm’s New York managing shareholder, acknowledged that a lawyer or firm’s transactional or litigation prowess could be more valuable to many clients than industry expertise or knowledge. “At the end of the day, when you’re talking about lawyering, you’re talking about a skill set that is independent of the specifics of an industry,” he said. Still, he agreed with Werner that firms were looking to such practice groups to give them an edge they might not otherwise have. A corporate governance group might not be a bad idea, said Vecchio. “It’s the flavor of the month,” he said. DEPTH OF EXPERIENCE But as such practice groups both expand and multiply, whatever competitive edge they provide is dulled, and questions naturally arise about whether a firm’s depth can match its breadth within a broadly defined area. Vecchio acknowledged that the more broad and generic groups get, the less likely it is that any specialized knowledge could be applied in a useful manner. Even in the ubiquitous technology practice groups firms built in the last four years, he said, the vast number and different types of companies entering the market stretched technology lawyers’ supposed industry expertise to the breaking point. The technology and telecommunications flameouts also point to the lurking danger that firms unveiling new practice groups will be swiftly left behind by shifting economic tides. The vast number of e-commerce, new economy, emerging company and other practice groups firms fielded during the technology heyday now seem quaint despite their relatively recent births. E-commerce, technology and telecommunications are just three of the more than 100 practice areas Holland & Knight lists on its Web site. Others include alcoholic beverages, gaming, hospitality, energy and health care. Lance Myers, a senior counsel in Holland & Knight’s New York office and a member of the new corporate governance group, said there was an internal as well as external marketing aspect to having a large number of practice areas — one that was particularly valuable to a firm that has grown rapidly through acquisition in a relatively short period. “Often people don’t know what other people do,” he said, noting that many partners chose to identify their own practice group, and that many lawyers belong to several groups. In the same vein, the firm’s corporate governance group, Myers said, was pitched both to clients and lawyers within the firm, who will now know who to call when certain issues emerge in discussions with clients. ATTEMPT TO STAND OUT Nonetheless, the vast number of new practice groups that firms claim can be confusing to both clients and other lawyers, as some groups may be built around the experience of leading practitioners, and others may be hastily established by firms targeting new areas for growth. For example, while new corporate governance practice groups are now being launched in response to the current environment, New York’s Weil, Gotshal & Manges has long had a practice built around corporate governance specialist Ira S. Milstein. And as more and more firms jump on practice group bandwagons, firms may find the effort to stand out leads to yet another form of obscurity. “It’s not always easy to distinguish between two Am Law 100 firms who both claim to be strong in a certain area,” said Vecchio. The danger that a practice group meant to differentiate a firm may have the opposite effect is one of the first challenges facing David Geyer in his new position as San Francisco-based Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s marketing head. Geyer is the former ad man who helped San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison build its reputation as a leading technology firm. A new practice group targeted at corporate governance issues is in the works at Orrick Herrington, Geyer said, but the firm wants to think hard about how to pull it off. “It’s a question of how you position the firm without looking too ‘me too,’” he said.

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