When Graciela Gomez Cowger joined Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt as an intellectual property lawyer in 2015, the firm had 62 specialties, two leaders and an uncertain place in the market. The firm’s annual revenue was around $66 million, and the Am Law 200 was a distant vision. Within three years, though, an overhaul of Portland, Oregon-based Schwabe’s leadership structure and practice offerings has boosted revenue more than 30 percent to more than $88 million, according to the firm. With one more year of double-digit growth, Schwabe could be on next year’s list. It’s among a group of firms nipping at the heels of the Am Law 200, driven by a focused strategy necessary to distinguish it from its midmarket peers.
“It was a moment of self-realization, where you put a mirror up against yourself and see where you’re at,” Cowger says of the overhaul. “We had 62 areas that we specialized in. It was not sustainable, and we didn’t have the kind of differentiators in the market that we wanted.” So Schwabe went out on a listening tour of its clients, asking what they wanted from the firm and taking it to heart.
“They wanted us to know more about them and their industries,” Cowger says. “They wanted us to provide legal solutions that were informed by that knowledge, so that’s what we’re setting out to do.”
Schwabe appointed Cowger as CEO, replacing a pair of leaders who had been in place for nearly 15 years, and focused on six industries (health care and life sciences; manufacturing, distribution and retail; natural resources; real estate and construction; technology; and transportation, ports and maritime). The changes have been welcomed by clients and laterals alike—the firm has added 53 attorneys in the past three years, spurred by commitment to its newfound strategy, and reached its revenue goal two years early, Cowger says. Revenue rose 8.4 percent last year, the firm says.
Riverside, California-based Best Best & Krieger, whose revenue jumped 8.9 percent to $91.5 million in 2018, didn’t need to find a focus to get to the Am Law 200’s doorstep—public agency work accounts for nearly three-quarters of the firm’s portfolio, managing partner Eric Garner says. “It’s an unusual niche,” he adds, suggesting no other similarly sized firm maintains a public agency focus.
Garner says Best Best has leaned hard into its unique focus to deliver strong results in recent years. It has 10 offices, nine of which are in California, so that it can be close to its clients—the firm is general counsel to nearly 50 cities in the Golden State. Earlier this decade, it acquired a Washington, D.C., firm that handled telecommunications matters, a move that’s helped it become a one-stop shop for public agencies in an increasingly connected world.
“If you had said to me three years ago, ‘I’m going to be talking to you in three years because you’re knocking on the door of the Am Law 200,’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, right,’” Garner says. “But most of the growth has been organic.”
So what does he think is the key to rising up the ranks from a position in the middle of the market?
“It’s finding your focus, and then, if you’re really fortunate, not a lot of other firms have the same focus,” he says.
Best Best is one of four firms in the Los Angeles area that could crack into the Am Law 200 in the near future, including Nossaman, whose $96 million in revenue placed it just outside of this year’s list, Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp ($83.5 million) and Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger ($82.3 million).
Porter Hedges, a Houston firm whose revenue spiked 9.5 percent to $83.8 million in 2018, is also on an impressive growth trajectory. A run of lateral partner hiring in 2017 paid off last year, says managing partner Robert Reedy, and most of the firm’s lateral hires in 2018 were associates. Despite the heavy traffic entering the Texas market in recent years, Porter Hedges has surged thanks to close ties with the energy industry and its relatively limited focus on corporate, energy, bankruptcy, litigation, finance, real estate and construction, Reedy says.
“We’ve made some significant investments in people over the last few years, both laterals and organic growth,” he says. “It’s time for all of that to pay off, and it paid off big time in 2018.”
Cowger says she occasionally hears from other firms that want to talk about how Schwabe developed and executed its strategic plan. And she hears from prospective laterals who feel their firms lack a strategic focus, or that it’s changed so often they might as well not have one. In both cases, she says, the lesson is the same.
“You can’t do it halfway. You have to commit,” Cowger says. “You have to commit to meeting your clients where they’re at, and that takes time and effort. It’s not just window dressing.”
Brenda Sapino Jeffreys contributed to this report.