Photo of John Wymer

John Wymer says he likes the idea of "building something from the ground up" as he opens an Atlanta office for Denver-based Sherman & Howard.

Four local Paul Hastings partners have left for other firms.

Finance lawyers Chris Molen and J. Craig Lee joined King & Spalding on February 1. Litigator J. Allen Maines joined Holland & Knight and employment lawyer John Wymer started an Atlanta office for the Denver firm Sherman & Howard.

Wymer, a veteran of several large law firms, said he wanted greater leeway in running his practice and liked the idea of starting something new. "One of the main reasons is to have some flexibility in the rates charged to clients," he said. "Sherman & Howard gives the partners a lot of authority and discretion to make the best business judgments they can — and they have a Chambers-rated labor and employment practice."

"The idea of building something from the ground up — not just being a cog in the wheel — is the chance of a lifetime. It’s something I’ve dreamed about that I haven’t been able to do until now," Wymer said.

Wymer, 63, said he’s been at big firms for most of his adult life, working at Paul Hastings in the 1980s, then Powell Goldstein, then King & Spalding and then back to Paul Hastings in 2006.

He’d known some of the Sherman & Howard lawyers, including Raymond Deeny, for almost 30 years, and when he decided to try something different he got in touch.

"They were interested, yet skeptical," Wymer said. "As we got to know each other, we saw that it was a perfect relationship in terms of my philosophy and how they do business."

Sherman & Howard has about 190 lawyers and its roots in Denver go back 120 years. Atlanta is the 11th office for the firm, which has four other offices in Colorado, including the ski resort towns of Vail, Aspen and Steamboat Springs, plus locations in Las Vegas and Reno, Nev.; Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz.; and St. Louis.

"When you get the opportunity to add someone like John Wymer, you look at it very seriously," said Sherman & Howard’s managing member, Michael Sanchez. "The law business is a people business more than a geographic location business."

Sanchez added that the firm has a "decent amount" of clients with ties to the Southeast and that employment law is a practice where having a broader geographic scope makes sense. "We’re competing against national labor and employment boutiques in that area so we can expand our footprint. But the No. 1 reason [for the Atlanta office] is John Wymer — the quality of the guy."

Sherman & Howard doesn’t have the bureaucracy of many large firms, Wymer said. The firm has no committees, he added, other than its executive committee.

"Lawyers have become obsessed with the business part of their practice, I think to some extent to the detriment of the profession part of the practice. The obsession with PPP is unfortunate," he added. "At Sherman & Howard, we are lawyers first."

As for rates, Wymer said, "It’s very difficult to charge what California and New York charge in Atlanta, especially in labor and employment law."

More rate flexibility means more opportunities to train younger lawyers, he added. "You have to be willing to do insurance defense to train new lawyers — and you’re priced out of it at big firms. I think it’s critical to have those cases," he said. "Do you make a lot of money? No. Do you develop great lawyers and get them experience? Yes — which you can’t do at $750 an hour.

"New lawyers deserve the opportunity to learn to be an attorney instead of a cog in the wheel in some massive case," Wymer said.

Sanchez said the "whole thrust" for the 21 years that he’s been in charge of Sherman & Howard has been to "free people up to be as good as they can be and not get in their way with bureaucracy and overwhelming overhead.

"We like our model. It’s one of the reasons people stay here," he said, adding that only five of the firm’s equity partners have left for other firms over his two-decade tenure as managing member.

Wymer said he plans to keep practicing for a long time, adding that he still has three children in high school and college. He brings clients with him, including Miller Coors; Alpharetta, Ga., battery manufacturer XI Technologies; and South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Co., and said he hopes to expand work from Sherman & Howard’s client base to east of the Mississippi.

Wymer said the firm would like to make Atlanta a full-service office and he’s talking to lawyers in different disciplines, adding that his most pressing need is to add a couple of associates to help with his own practice.

"I hope there are people who are intrigued — who find this approach different and refreshing," Wymer said.

Sherman & Howard is in negotiations for permanent space for the Atlanta office, he said. Meanwhile it is leasing temporary space in Buckhead’s Lenox Building at 3399 Peachtree Road N.E.

Trial lawyer Maines’ new firm, Holland & Knight, also is in growth mode. The Atlanta managing partner, Robert Highsmith, said adding Maines is a coup for the firm. "Allen is fantastic and we’re thrilled to have him."

Maines, who co-chaired Paul Hastings’ global litigation practice and led the securities litigation and enforcement practice, has tried 22 cases in his almost 40-year career and handled more than 70 class actions.

In one recent $400 million cross-border shareholder dispute before both the English High Court and the Southern District of New York, the Chambers-listed litigator defended Afghan-American entrepreneur Ehsan Bayat and his Florida-based company, Telephone Systems International, against claims from Bayat’s erstwhile British partners in Afghanistan’s first mobile phone company, Afghan Wireless — a joint venture between TSI and the Afghan Ministry of Communications.

Highsmith said Holland & Knight added almost 30 lateral partners firmwide last year and it’s a priority to develop the Atlanta office, which currently has about 30 lawyers. "We’re looking to build on that momentum in Atlanta and Allen’s obviously a great part of that," he said.

Molen said moving his asset-based lending practice to King & Spalding was not an easy decision after almost two decades at Paul Hastings. "I am leaving a great firm. Paul Hastings is an international firm of some renown and I was very proud to be there for 19 years," Molen said.

After competing with King & Spalding’s finance lawyers for a long time, Molen said, he and his partner Lee decided to join them.

Molen handles loan transactions for banks, finance companies and hedge funds, he said, generally for the lender. Lee has worked with him for several years, becoming a partner about three years ago.

Molen said King & Spalding’s finance practice is a bit bigger than Paul Hastings’ — at least in the Southeast. "This is the top brand in Atlanta and the Southeast, plus they have a big footprint in Charlotte and New York."

His practice has become more focused on the Southeast over the years, he said, representing SunTrust and other financial institutions, including G.E. Capital, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan and Bank of America — all King & Spalding clients as well.

"We have a lot of similar clients, so I wasn’t worried about conflicts," Molen said.

Molen, who characterized himself as a "young, vibrant, aggressive 60," said he wants to keep building his practice and sees a chance to be entrepreneurial at King & Spalding. "I don’t want to ride out into retirement," he said.

He said his rates will go down a bit at his new firm. According to the most recent figure in the Daily Report‘s Going Rate database, Molen billed $895 an hour in 2010.

"That was a factor, but certainly not the driving one," he said.

Molen started practicing in 1977, spending 17 years at Powell Goldstein, then almost 19 years at Paul Hastings, after being recruited by Philip Marzetti, the firm’s Atlanta managing partner and his former colleague at Powell Goldstein.

"This will be my last firm," he said.

Marzetti wished his former partners well. "It’s always a little sad when friends move on to things they view as a better fit for them. I wish them great success."

He said Molen’s departure was particularly bittersweet, since the latter is a good friend. The two worked together their entire careers, from Molen’s arrival at Powell Goldstein as a summer associate through their time at Paul Hastings, Marzetti said. "I’m sad to see him leave and I hope he has a lot of fun."

Marzetti said his 1,000-lawyer firm has a "vibrant finance practice" among its 20 offices, including its 52-lawyer Atlanta office. "This is the time of year when we see a lot of partner movement. We will continue, as we always do, to look for talent and expertise that fit our needs."