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With the strongest growing economy in the country and a recent lifting of restrictions on law firms seeking to cash in on the boom, Las Vegas is becoming a hot spot for practice expansion. Many firms based outside Nevada are opening new offices or stoking up existing practices in the state’s largest city, fueled by new construction, a burgeoning work force and increased tourism. The opportunities are coupled with a revision of Nevada rules that previously prohibited outside firms from doing business in the state unless the firms’ name partners were licensed in Nevada. VYING FOR SIN CITY The result is competition among local firms, and among regional and national firms, all vying for a piece of the action in Sin City. Los Angeles-based Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, for example, opened an office in downtown Las Vegas this year. It started with 10 lawyers and now has 23. Although Las Vegas’ economy is centered on entertainment, the legal work “cuts across all industries,” said Timothy Graves, managing partner of Lewis Brisbois’ Los Angeles office. The firm has 459 lawyers and 10 locations nationwide. Particularly strong right now for Lewis Brisbois’ Las Vegas operation is construction-defect defense, litigation, real estate and professional liability, Graves said. Other growth areas for firms, according to practitioners, include land use and planning, health care, environmental law and estate planning, which stems from an increase in seniors moving to the area for retirement. Las Vegas’ population has grown at a steady 6 percent annually for the last 17 years, and last year, new home sales totaled about 25,230, up 10 percent over the previous year. But it was the change in the practice rules that prompted Lewis Brisbois to move into Las Vegas, Graves said. Before 2002, law firms wanting to practice in Nevada could do so only if their name reflected attorneys licensed in Nevada. “Our boss, Bob Lewis, was not going to take the [Nevada] bar,” Graves said. For Snell & Wilmer, practicing under the firm name was an impossibility, since Frank Snell and Mark Wilmer were no longer alive, said managing partner Patrick Byrne. With 27 attorneys now in its Las Vegas office — up from 13 last year — Snell & Wilmer, which has offices in Phoenix and five other Western cities, sued the state over the restriction. Since a previous outside firm, Phoenix-based Lewis and Roca, had received a federal injunction in 2001 barring the state from using Supreme Court Rule 199 against out-of-state firms, Snell & Wilmer challenged the state when it sought to invoke the same restriction. Like Lewis and Roca, Lewis Brisbois charged that Rule 199 infringed upon the firm’s First Amendment right to commercial speech. While the case was pending in 2002, the state revised the restriction to allow outside firms to use their names in Nevada. Before the change, Snell & Wilmer’s Las Vegas practice called itself Curtis & Associates, named after attorney Patricia Curtis, a lawyer licensed in Nevada and hired by the firm. When people called the office, the receptionist answered, “Curtis & Associates affiliated with Snell & Wilmer,” according to Byrne. “It became a real problem for clients,” he said. “They were confused.” These days, the office is focusing its efforts on litigation, bankruptcy and smaller finance deals. The big transactional projects continue going to firms on the East and West coasts, Byrne said. He added that locally based lawyers garner much of the gaming work, including licensing and related litigation. A ‘TIGHT COMMUNITY’ Despite the lifting of restrictions, some attorneys say that Las Vegas businesses continue to protect their local people. “It’s a pretty tight community there. In order to have credibility, you’ve got to have local lawyers,” said Dianne Dailey, president of Portland, Ore.-based Bullivant Houser Bailey. The 163-attorney firm’s Las Vegas office grew from one attorney to eight this year, she said. A big part of that strategy was wooing two local attorneys to help the Portland firm penetrate the Las Vegas market. One new hire was Mark James, a former state senator. The other was Peter Bernhard, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. But even for out-of-state firms that successfully entice local lawyers to join their practices, they still may not be able to provide clients with the kind of service they want, said Paul Hejmanowski, managing partner of Las Vegas-based Lionel Sawyer & Collins. The local firm has 80 attorneys. He said that national law firms, which are following a consolidation model established by accounting firms, risk rendering their practices unwieldy. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea. I think it’s difficult to do well,” Hejmanowski said.

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