Sabrina Stavish, a native of Upstate New York, recalls graduating from University of Colorado Law School in 1987 not expecting to remain in the state for decades following.
“I never thought I’d stay at the same place for 30 years,” said Stavish, who in September marked her 30th anniversary at 40-lawyer intellectual property firm Sheridan Ross in Denver. Stavish is an executive committee member and has held leadership roles on and off for years.
In many ways, Stavish’s story is the story of Denver, which in recent years has had an influx of people from other states. Business is booming, and people like living there for a variety of reasons. And, as it turns out, those are reasons enough to sustain law firms, and attract law firms from elsewhere.
But even a boom market can get crowded.
In eras past, the dynamic was simple. Lawyers minted in Colorado joined what Stavish calls “legacy” Colorado firms. But since about 2000, Denver in particular has been a market that bigger, out-of-state firms have targeted.
“A lot of them have been swallowed up,” Stavish said of those legacy firms. “Firms just started combining with national firms, or firms from the Midwest. … Some [big firms] just come and set up an office, and some merge with an existing firm.”
She added, “some of the firms I’d put on the legacy list are no longer Denver-based firms.”
Indeed, Big Law has come to Denver, and in many cases has stayed.
In 2008, Kansas City-based Husch Blackwell opened a Denver office headed by a litigation attorney, Mary Stuart, whom the firm hired away from local firm Holme Roberts & Owen.
In 2011, Husch Blackwell’s Denver shop absorbed all but a handful of lawyers from homegrown Jacobs Chase, pushing its head count in the city above 40. That office now has 50 lawyers, according to the firm’s website.
Later in 2011, Holme Roberts, then with 150 lawyers, was acquired by St. Louis-based Bryan Cave, pushing that firm’s lawyer ranks above 1,100. Holme Robert had been around for 113 years at that point, according to reports at the time. Bryan Cave currently has 69 lawyers in Denver, according to its website.
Big Law’s Denver foothold goes back even further than that. Hogan Lovells has long had a presence in the city, and in 2016 moved into new office space. The Denver office of Polsinelli, established in 1998, has grown to almost 90 attorneys, the firm announced earlier this year.
Perhaps most telling, in August the Denver Business Journal reported that growth in Denver’s lawyer population is outpacing that of its general population.
Tom List, managing partner of approximately 60-lawyer Moye White, a Denver firm formed 40 years ago, estimated that there were more than 20 homegrown firms in the city a decade ago, and perhaps less than half that many today. The firm has been approached by merger suitors over the years, but has opted to stay the course.
“We scratch our heads and say, boy, are we dumb or are we smart?” List said. “We don’t want to answer to an office back East. We like our autonomy.”
He added, “there are firms out there that want to grab our market share—so far we’ve been successful at keeping them at bay.”
List knows about competition and lateral mobility.
In late 2013, his firm, Franke Greenhouse List & Lippitt, was absorbed by Moye White. Moye White has—and had then—an “unbelievable reputation in Denver,” and List and his partners “didn’t want to join a national” firm, he said.
“I think we compete very well” with local firms and Big Law branches alike, said List, a commercial real estate attorney who has been Moye White’s managing partner for six years
When it comes to laterals, the gate swings both ways.
“We have numerous folks who have left bigger firms, either back East or in Denver,” List said, noting the recent hire of a lateral partner, Rose Standifer, a transactional lawyer previously with Cooley‘s Palo Alto, California, office.
As for client work, “we realize we can’t necessarily compete with the depth, the sheer volume” of a large firm, but Moye White is “appropriately priced” for the mid-market and small business client base the firm has, List said—noting that a few firm partners have hourly rates that reach $600, though most partners bill at rates between $350 and $500 per hour.
“And I think we can compete with them skill-wise and expertise-wise,” he said of Moye White’s Big Law competitors.
List is part of a national managing partner forum, and “we’re all facing the same courtships,” he said, but Moye White has resisted.
While Midwest-based firms “seem more amenable” to life in Denver, ”the East Coast dynamic, we don’t think would fit well with our culture”—or the Denver “way of doing business,” he said.
That way of doing business, as he sees it, is less edgy and requires closer relationships with clients.
“I like to know my clients,” List said. “I like to see them walking down the street. I like them to come visit if they’re [based] out of town.”
Stavish agreed, and wants the Denver market to continue to support firms that have grown there organically: “I like having these independent firms—people tied to the community and the businesses here. … I don’t like the sort of franchise model.”
It seems Denver-based firms are interacting with the Big Law set whether regardless of geography.
According to Kristin Lentz and Chad Williams, co-managing partners of Davis Graham & Stubbs, a century-old Denver-based firm of about 150 lawyers, the normal course of business brings firms of widely varying size and reach together.
“Whether they’re planting a flag or not in Denver, we see them across the table constantly in deal work,” said Lentz, a corporate transactional attorney.
There are booming industries in Denver, such as technology, energy and natural resources, and health care, said Lentz, Williams and others. And that attracts law firms. But so does the fact that Denver has become a desirable place to live for many, including the skilled lawyers whom firms of any size would covet.
And so the invasion seems likely to persist.
Firms making a serious attempt at establishing a physical presence in Denver want to make an impact, by hiring a large group of true Colorado practitioners, according to Lentz.
Williams added, “You can’t dabble in the Denver market. You have to have critical mass sooner rather than later. And then you have to retain talent.”
That has led to an aggressive recruiting approach in the city, lawyers said.
Sheridan Ross has received overtures—”usually from the bigger, more general firms trying to build their IP practices,” according to Stavish, who during her tenure has seen the firm grow from 10 lawyers to 40.
It’s not just merger shopping, but lateral recruiting, too.
“It used to be that the headhunters were after you in the associate ranks. The fact that they’re calling a 30-year partner is a change,” said Stavish, speaking of her own brushes with legal recruiters.
As that dynamic has changed, the practice has broadened, according to Stavish, who handles trademark and copyright prosecution. Her practice is now equally made up of Colorado and non-Colorado clients, she said.
Davis Graham’s Williams, a litigator, said his firm’s litigation practice is made up of more out-of-state work than in-state work. A private equity firm based in Denver might have a dispute in another jurisdiction where it has deployed capital, he noted as an example.
It’s “hard to fill your plate with big case litigation in Denver,” Williams said. “There just aren’t sufficient $100 million cases in Colorado.”
The lawyers said there’s no reason the midsize and smaller legacy firms can’t survive and thrive, given their established brands, rate advantages and deep roots in the community. But some might fall victim to a fate that befalls such firms in many markets.
Acquisition by Big Law might be seen by some Denver firms as “a way to solve the succession dilemma,” according to List.
“I do think there’s a sense of fear with some of them, particularly [those] with an aging partnership,” List said. And so succession planning is the “key to survival” for Denver’s crop of homegrown firms, he said.
Said Williams, “We’ve managed to maintain a preeminent brand in this region,” he said. “We’ll have to see what happens 10 years from now.”