Sonnenschein Law Firm Gains In Exodus of LeBoeuf Attorneys

Staff Reporter

Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal came to town a decade ago and has been growing rapidly since. Good for Sonnenschein, bad for LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae LLP.

LeBoeuf has lost five lawyers to Chicago-based Sonnenschein since October and is now down to six partners in L.A.

"The L.A. office (of LeBoeuf) has been in disintegration over the past six to eight months," said Robert Nelson, who joined LeBoeuf 16 months ago to beef up its bankruptcy practice. "I concluded that trying to add bankruptcy partners was next to impossible because of the way the L.A. office was going." Nelson is one of the group that left for Sonnenschein.

He followed Shirley Curfman, head of LeBoeuf's corporate practice, who left in October with corporate partner Herumi Hata. In February, corporate and real estate attorney Robert Johnson, who was of counsel at LeBoeuf, joined Sonnenschein along with an associate. Nelson made the move earlier this month.

"We have a stronger practice in California than LeBoeuf does," said Rob Scoular, managing partner of Sonnenschein's L.A. office. "We have a very strong and expanding corporate client base. We can support Shirley's and Herumi's clients in other areas like litigation, real estate and intellectual property."

Sonnenschein opened its L.A. office in 1990 with four lawyers. It now has 60. Among the clients brought on with the LeBoeuf hires: Deutsche Bank AG, Charter Communications Inc. and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles (handling real estate work). In addition to the LeBoeuf attorneys, Sonnenschein has lured McCutchen Doyle Brown & Enersen LLP's head of bankruptcy, Michael Lubic, and an associate. It also has moved a partner and associate from its Chicago office to Los Angeles.

Responding to the departures, LeBoeuf in December brought back Gary Apfel, a former partner who had been a managing director of German tech firm Elsa AG, to serve as co-managing partner and restructure the office.

"The L.A. office had never been an integrated part of the law firm," he said. Many of the practices in L.A. were out of sync with the rest of the firm, which is best known for its insurance and energy work.

While Apfel said there were plans to recruit attorneys who might better complement LeBoeuf's practice areas, the firm has not yet hired anyone.

Part of the problems at LeBoeuf stem from having a New York headquarters reluctant to invest in top-notch attorneys on the West Coast, Nelson said.

"It comes down to a commitment by the national firm to the L.A. office that they're prepared to pay market rates to attract good talent," Nelson said. "You've got to take the resources that are generated in other offices, and if you're committed to the L.A. market you have to spend a fair amount of money to attract quality talent."

LeBoeuf's struggles are not unique among the New York firms that opened offices here in the mid-1980s, said Michael Waldorf, a consultant at search firm Waldorf Associates Inc.

Many expected to bill at the same rates as in New York but found that in middle market Los Angeles, rates companies pay are much lower. Without some financial help from New York, many of the local offices failed to bring in the attorneys with the big-ticket deals, Waldorf said.

"There's a certain hubris these firms have where they're used to being big names in a wealthy environment, and they think they can replicate that name and drawing power in Los Angeles," Waldorf said.

Apfel opened the LeBoeuf office in 1986, leaving the firm three years later. He said leaders of the firm are now actively helping grow a new LeBoeuf presence in L.A. The firm has 750 attorneys worldwide.

"It was important that when I went back to New York that the two co-chairmen of the firm made a commitment to me that we would be doing this together," Apfel said.

He said the cases handled out of Los Angeles were more independent, local deals handled under the LeBoeuf umbrella, rather than higher-scale, global deals generally run out of the New York office.

Legal Walkout

A quarter of Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly LLP's lawyers left the firm this month, taking their intellectual property practices with them.

Oppenheimer Wolff, based in Saint Paul, Minn., had 23 attorneys and 16 partners in its L.A. office. Among the six departing partners was its local managing partner, Marc Brown, who, along with three others, joined the local office of McDermott Will & Emery.

Oppenheimer spokesman Laurie Zenner said it was the largest defection since the firm opened its L.A. office with the acquisition of Poms Smith Lande & Rose in 1997. She declined to speculate on the reasons for the departures, but did say Brown would be replaced as managing partner by Guy Smith, former name partner at Poms Smith.

Joining Brown at Chicago-based McDermott are Cynthia Lock, Charles Rosenberg and Mark Wine. Former Oppenheimer partners Chris Darrow and Charles Berman will join Greenberg Traurig LLP.

Brown wouldn't comment on the reasons for the departures.

"It's an outstanding firm," he said of McDermott. "It has a solid IP practice that is growing by leaps and bounds and has already demonstrated tremendous success. It's a strong firm, a healthy firm, and it provides a platform that in my practice will help me succeed."

The defections come as a number of general practice firms, of which McDermott is one, are luring IP attorneys with high salaries, said Art Hasan, a partner at IP boutique Christie Parker & Hale LLP.

"Intellectual property is lucrative," Hasan said. "It's a unique area where a lawyer actually builds an asset in helping to obtain a patent. It's a piece of property. That's why it's valuable and why general practice firms are getting into it."

Last month, Oppenheimer recruited partner Craig Gelfound from Christie Parker & Hale, Zenner said. The firm also has offices in Palo Alto and Newport Beach.

Amanda Bronstad

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