Los Angeles' central role in the case against law firm Milberg Weiss & Bershad LLP was on display again over the past two weeks, as media reports had lawyers at the firm meeting with federal prosecutors in the city in an effort to stave off a trial.
Federal prosecutors based in Los Angeles have been investigating the firm since 1999, and it was a federal grand jury sitting in the city that indicted the firm and two name partners last year for allegedly paying clients to serve as lead plaintiffs in securities class actions suits.
But in contrast to Milberg Weiss' fight for its life in a Los Angeles federal courthouse and the mass exodus of attorneys in New York following the indictment, the firm's Los Angeles satellite has been the scene of relative tranquility.
Since the indictment, only one attorney has left the six-attorney local office, a senior associate who was there for nine months.
According to two lawyers familiar with the office, much of the credit for its stability is due to Jeff Westerman, the office's managing partner. These attorneys asked that their names not be used given the on-going investigation.
Westerman, who declined to comment, does not sit on the firm's management committee and is not considered one of the more powerful partners. "Jeff wasn't privy to all the inside stuff," said an attorney knowledgeable of the office's internal workings, "and maybe that's a good thing."
But while Westerman may be out of the loop when it comes to the New York mothership, he has created a "cohesive and loyal unit" in the Los Angeles office, which has two junior partners, three associates and six staff members, the attorney added.
Westerman played a key role in the elevation from associates of the two other partners in the office. For this reason headhunters and other law firms have not been able to pick off lawyers in the office. "There is a feeling that Jeff will keep them together and protect them from what's happening at the firm," continued the attorney.
While the Los Angeles office is not a power center in the firm, it has played an active role in several class action lawsuits brought by the firm over the past few years. Among them was a shareholders class action suit against Remec Inc., a wireless communications equipment company alleged to have inflated the company's financial results.
Shareholder class action lawsuits targeting some of the nation's largest corporations and the executives at those companies emerged as the core of the firm's practice, and allowed it to grow into the nation's largest plaintiffs' firm. Milberg Weiss claims to have recovered over $45 billion for clients.
But according to federal authorities, the firm's market leading position was due in part to illegal kickbacks to clients who served as lead plaintiffs in class action cases.
Many of the firm's securities cases were led by former name partner William Lerach, who established his power center at the firm's San Diego office. As a result of the federal investigation, Lerach and dozens of other mainly San Diego-based attorneys left the firm and established Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins LLP in that city.
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