Lewis Brisbois Partners Break Away

Lewis Brisbois Partners Break Away
Attorneys: John Barber, fourth from left, and Jeff Ranen, fifth from left, with some of the lawyers at their new firm, Barber Ranen. The pair left Lewis, Brisbois, Bigaard & Smith last week and have set up shop downtown with plans to hire as many as 140 attorneys.

In a stunning move, two longtime partners at Lewis, Brisbois, Bigaard & Smith last week split off into a brand-new law firm, which — with as many as 140 attorneys potentially on board, all from Lewis Brisbois — they’re calling the largest startup law firm in U.S. history.

Barber Ranen LLP was formed last week as the brainchild of John Barber and Jeff Ranen, who co-founded the downtown-based firm with six other former Lewis Brisbois partners. The widespread commitment to follow by other Lewis Brisbois attorneys has resulted in a blockbuster launch with four California offices as well as eight additional markets nationwide.

“Two weeks ago, I gave my ‘Jerry Maguire’ speech, and I didn’t know if a lot of people were going to follow me or if I’d just be with a secretary and a goldfish,” Ranen said. “If I do nothing else with the rest of my career, I will be satisfied with just the people who chose to follow us. I never thought I’d have my name on a firm and I’ve also never been more excited in my entire professional life.”

Lewis Brisbois leadership, in the wake of the mass exodus, also spent much of last week undergoing a significant reorganization, punctuated most prominently by the stepping down of longtime co-chair and co-founder Bob Lewis. Virtually all of the departures come from Lewis Brisbois’ employment law practice group, where all worked under Barber’s and Ranen’s leadership.

Although starting off as a labor and employment firm, the two aim to ultimately create a business partner law firm, a “one-stop shop to get everything taken care of,” Barber said.

Pulling the trigger

Barber, who spent 25-plus years at the downtown-based Lewis Brisbois, and Ranen, who spent 21 years there, had spent months discussing the idea, going back and forth on it until they decided in April it was time to pull the trigger.

“The origin is simple: Jeff Ranen and I have practiced for 20 years together. I hired him directly out of law school,” Barber said. “We both came to a point in our careers where we wanted to start something fresh and aligned with our personalities.”

With Barber Ranen, the two say they have created a firm that rewards its associates and partners with stronger salaries, benefits and retirement plans than they had at Lewis Brisbois, along with a robust maternity and paternity leave policy and broad flexibility with working remotely. Here, they said they want people to feel excited at the prospect of staying on as long-termers or lifers without stressing themselves to a breaking point or engaging in turf wars with their colleagues.

“John and I could have retired from Lewis Brisbois, but what led me to leave was that the attorneys on my team — who I’ve been incredibly loyal to and them to me were just dissatisfied with the status quo and were ready for a change and to help build something with a vision of a law firm that would be based on a true pursuit of excellence,” Ranen said. “Work product comes first. Quality comes first. Quantity and billable hours come second. We wanted to lead with empathy, collaboration and compassion, to do it our way and not have any baggage.”

Expanding on that, Barber said excellence and culture are their driving forces, and while profits are “a pleasant byproduct” of a law firm, the environment they want to foster is delivering top-shelf legal service at a better price point and taking better care of their attorneys for it.

“That means if profit takes a back seat, then profit takes a back seat, and a lot of people think that’s crazy,” Barber said, adding, “In the long run, the lack of attrition and talent you attract through that forward thinking is going to yield a far greater economic and cultural return than figuring out the least expensive way you can get through it.”

Other founders

In addition to Barber and Ranen, founding partners of the firm include Melissa Daugherty, Kate Den Bleyker, John Haubrich Jr., Joe Lordan, Rachel McClintock and Billy Sung. All are based in the company’s downtown office, save for Barber, who is in Newport Beach, and Lordan, who calls San Francisco home. Additionally, former Lewis Brisbois Chief Operating Officer Robert Kamins, who now runs a law firm advisory and consulting business, is serving as outside COO and Tim Graves — who served as national managing partner for Lewis Brisbois for years — came out of retirement to be Barber Ranen’s chief executive.

The co-founders all begin as equity partners, while subsequent hires will likely have that option made available to them within two or three years. As of last week, nearly 130 associates and partners from Lewis Brisbois have signed on, and Ranen said he expects that number to reach 140 by the end of the month.

“The infrastructure from a human-capital standpoint was already there,” he said. “We didn’t have to recruit people. I can’t even tell you the number of equity and nonequity partners confidentially texting me over the weekend telling me, ‘Take me with you.’”

The firm’s other California office is in Sacramento, and it has attorneys practicing in Phoenix, Denver, Boston, Las Vegas, Portland, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Seattle. Torrey Pines Bank, a San Diego-based subsidiary of Western Alliance Bank, funded Barber Ranen’s startup loan.

“The timing of our departure was very fortunate for us from a real estate standpoint,” Ranen said. “If you ever need commercial real estate, this is the year, so we’ve been able to enter into very doable leases and subleases.”

The first domino

Lewis Brisbois gave the first public hint that something was up.

In an unusual Sunday afternoon announcement, Lewis Brisbois announced new appointments to its chair and vice chair seats for its labor and employment practice — titles that Barber and Ranen held, respectively. That press release also included a note that an unspecified group of employment partners in California were departing to launch a new firm.

“We thank these attorneys for their service to our law firm and wish them well in their new endeavors,” Lewis, then the co-chair of Lewis Brisbois, said in the announcement. “We look forward to continuing to serve our clients and insurance carriers as we foster ongoing growth throughout the United States.”

By Wednesday — as the scope of the exodus became clear — Lewis had stepped down as co-chair and is now chairman emeritus for the AmLaw 100 firm he co-founded in 1979. The firm also dissolved its executive committee and signaled plans to expand its management committee, for which elections will take place May 9.

That election will bring five members to that committee, bringing its total to 13. The committee will then appoint a new firmwide managing partner and other administrative roles.

Lewis Brisbois co-founder and co-chair Bob Smith — who hailed Lewis as “a titan of the legal profession” — made the Wednesday announcement and countered the notion the firm was shooting from the hip in these decisions. He also downplayed the impact of the defections on Lewis Brisbois’ workforce, noting it amounted to less than 8% of its approximately 1,700 attorneys firmwide.

“For some time now, we have held discussions about altering our management structure,” he said in a statement. “Rarely does there seem to be a good time to introduce meaningful change. Recent events, however, have created new opportunities for Lewis Brisbois to expand, grow, strengthen and change our management team.

“Change is a positive,” Smith added. “What won’t change is our steadfast focus on delivering outstanding counsel and results to our clients.”

Lewis Brisbois did not make anyone available for an interview last week.

For their part, Barber and Ranen were careful to not criticize anyone in particular at Lewis Brisbois, or even speak harshly of the firm. They characterized the change of scenery they desired as being reflective of any Big Law firm of that size.

“Basically, in a firm as large as that, there is a level of compromise that is necessary to their success, and we decided we didn’t want to compromise anymore, to set out on our own and craft something special,” Barber said. “There’s nothing wrong with compromise. When you put a bunch of strong-willed, bright people in a room who are running a 1,700-lawyer law firm, there’s going to be a lot of opinions. A lot of time, a camel is a horse designed by committee.”

Ranen agreed.

“I’ll always be full of gratitude for what they did,” he said of Lewis Brisbois. “They let us build an entire department.”

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