Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough has opened its first West Coast location after setting up shop in Gardena, California, a city located just south of downtown Los Angeles.
To staff the new outpost, which will initially serve Nelson Mullins’ automotive industry clients, the firm has hired five lawyers, including Richard Otera, a former in-house lawyer at Honda North America Inc. and general counsel for Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd., who will serve as the office’s managing partner.
Partners Kevin Colton, Lisa Gibson and Maurice “Mo” Sanchez, as well as associate Jessica Higashiyama, round out the crew of lawyers joining the office. All previously worked at Baker & Hostetler in nearby Costa Mesa, California, where Gibson served as of counsel.
Nelson Mullins managing partner James Lehman said the Columbia, South Carolina-based firm has been looking to move into the Golden State for some time. The firm’s automotive practice is one of the largest in the country, and the foreign automotive companies that have their U.S. headquarters near Gardena include Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Hyundai Motor Co., Kia Motors Corp., Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. and Mazda Motor Corp.
“We often have a number of clients who have needs in California, but we’ve always had to associate [with other] outside counsel before,” Lehman said. “We have a lot of litigation pending in the Los Angeles area.”
Otera (pictured right), who worked at Honda from 2001 to 2015 and was the primary in-house lawyer with the Tokyo-based company’s U.S. arm responsible for dealer franchise and other commercial legal issues, said he had relied on Nelson Mullins for product liability work, initially because its hourly rates were lower than those of firms with headquarters in New York or Los Angeles.
“Because they’re based in Columbia, their rates started with 3s and 4s instead of 7s, 8s and 9s,” Otera said. “What developed over time is that they not only had a tremendous rate advantage, but they were better than everyone else because they did it every day.”
With an office in Southern California, Nelson Mullins is positioned to take on matters that would normally fall to an auto company’s in-house team, Otera said. Because the firm has insight into what’s happening across the auto industry, he added that Nelson Mullis is equipped to provide sophisticated legal support that the company can’t get elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of work I handled in-house at Honda that has never been the historical province of any law firm,” said Otera, who began his legal career two decades ago at Hawkins, Schnabel, Lindahl & Beck and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.
Though Nelson Mullins’ new office is auto-focused for now, Otera said he expects the firm to eventually be able to handle employment, environmental, intellectual property and technology matters. Otera spent more than two years at Sumitomo Electric, the world’s largest wire and cable producer. His experience in the Osaka-based company’s U.S. legal department could help Nelson Mullins gain a foothold in those other practice areas, Otera said.
Last year, Nelson Mullins opened a Denver office, which is also geared toward motor vehicle work. The firm saw its gross revenue rise by 18.4 percent in 2016, with head count rising 2.7 percent, to 515 lawyers. Lehman said he expected Nelson Mullins to grow quickly in Southern California.
“I’d be surprised if we weren’t 15 or 20 lawyers within 18 months,” Lehman said.