If it wasn’t for John Mowbray, Spencer Fane may have never been able to open an office in Las Vegas. Neither would any other out-of-town firm, for that matter.
As president of the State Bar of Nevada in the early 2000s, Mowbray led an effort to modernize rules forbidding law firms whose name partners were not licensed lawyers in Nevada from setting up shop in the Silver State. The rule once led Snell & Wilmer, a Phoenix-based Am Law 200 firm, to be known in Las Vegas for a time as Curtis & Associates.
For the second time since 2006, Mowbray took advantage of that rule change this month when he launched a Sin City outpost for Spencer Fane, a fast-growing firm that in the past year has opened offices in Dallas, Oklahoma City, Phoenix and now Las Vegas. In November, the Kansas City, Missouri-based firm acquired a 30-lawyer shop in Denver, which at the time brought Spencer Fane’s head count to more than 190. The firm now has more than 210 lawyers.
Mowbray previously opened the Las Vegas office of Fennemore & Craig, where he served as the firm’s local managing partner until last month. In a town with a tight-knit, relationship-based legal community, Spencer Fane appears to have accomplished the first task on the checklist to successfully entering Las Vegas: Land a pillar of the community to build around.
Mowbray (pictured right) is a second-generation Nevada lawyer whose former firm once represented musician Liberace and reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes Jr. Mowbray, whose father served for more than 25 years on the Nevada Supreme Court, is also a board member for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.
In an interview this week, Mowbray said he has often declined entreaties from out-of-town firms eager to enter the Las Vegas legal market through him. But he was enticed by Spencer Fane’s growth, their investments in technology and the resources the firm will provide his practice.
“The main thing is to adapt to the current challenges of the 21st century. That’s the challenge the legal profession is facing nationwide,” Mowbray said. “Spencer Fane, it’s my impression, was a little more sensitive to what client demands are and they are open-minded about innovation. Their business model is growing. It’s on the upswing. That’s what really attracted me.”
Spencer Fane is entering a legal market that is somewhat limited in its Am Law 200 presence, partly due to its longtime bar restrictions on outsider firms.
California-based Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith, which opened a Las Vegas office in 2004, has the most local lawyers—at 59—among Am Law 200 firms, according to ALM Intelligence data. Snell & Wilmer, which opened in the city in 2000, now has 35 lawyers in Las Vegas.
ALM Intelligence notes that a cluster of other Am Law 200 firms have between 25 and 35 lawyers in the city: Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Greenberg Traurig, Holland & Hart, Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie and Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker. (Fennemore Craig, which fell off the Am Law 200 list a few years ago, has absorbed large groups of lawyers from dissolving Las Vegas-based firms Jones Vargas in 2012 and Lionel Sawyer & Collins in 2015.)
Spencer Fane chairman Patrick Whalen said his firm first targeted Nevada through a “2020 growth plan” that it put together about five years ago. That plan identified 12 to 18 legal markets that Spencer Fane would target for expansion. After Whalen was introduced to Mowbray, the deal came together within months, Whelan said.
“We had Nevada on that list and we weren’t necessarily working the opportunity on a full-time basis, but when you get an introduction to someone who is spoken of so highly, it tends to bring things together quickly,” Whalen said.
Spencer Fane reported double-digit growth in income and $63.6 million in gross revenue for 2015—figures for 2016 were not available—and just missed out on appearing on the Am Law 200 this year, which had a gross revenue cutoff of $93 million. Part of Spencer Fane’s 2020 plan is to have $100 million in gross revenue by 2020, Whalen said.
“We’re way ahead of schedule,” added Whalen, who took over Spencer Fane’s leadership in 2013.
After earning his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Notre Dame, Mowbray in 1976 moved back to Las Vegas, where his parents had moved in 1949 and where his father later became one of the most well-known judges in the state.
Mowbray clerked for a federal judge for two years before joining a small firm, Morris & Foley, which represented Hughes, the billionaire aviator and gaming magnate. In 1986, that firm became Morse & Mowbray. Mowbray’s fellow name partner, William Morse, died in 2004, and Mowbray joined Fennemore & Craig two years later.
Mowbray was portrayed by David Koechner in “Behind the Candelabra,” a 2013 movie by HBO about Liberace. Mowbray declined to discuss whether he ever represented Liberace, citing client confidentiality rules, but the movie and a book about Liberace identify Mowbray as the late entertainer’s attorney. The movie portrays Mowbray as representing Liberace in a legal dispute with a former lover who eventually settled a palimony case with Liberace.
In an example of how tight-knit the Las Vegas legal community is, Mowbray said retired U.S. Sen. Harry Reid gave the commencement speech this month at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law, where Mowbray’s son was graduating. Reid told the story of his first appearance in court and mentioned that the grandson of the judge—Mowbray’s father—was in attendance.
“That was kind of a neat moment,” Mowbray said.
Spencer Fane likely won’t be the last out-of-town firm eager to make a bet on the Las Vegas legal market, Mowbray said. The town is on the up-swing, marked by population growth and the upcoming debut of a National Hockey League expansion team and the relocation of the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders.
“There is a renewed interest in Las Vegas,” Mowbray said. “National firms are seeing opportunities for growth here, and there is no question that it flat-lined and maybe declined during the great recession. But we’re back on the growth curve, and that’s a good thing.”