Three law firms from the Southern United States have moved into Los Angeles, a trend that's driven by the firms' desire for growth and client demand for services from firms that have wider geographic reach.
Atlanta, Ga.-based Alston & Bird LLP became the latest Southern firm to make its way west. That happened last month when the 900-attorney firm announced it was merging with Los Angeles-based Weston Benshoof Rochefort Rubalcava MacCuish LLP.
In the last three years, Hunton & Williams LLP and McGuireWoods LLP, both based in Richmond, Va., opened up shop in Los Angeles, and have grown their offices to 16 and 44 attorneys, respectively.
Some clients need firms that have offices in a wide variety of locations across the country because they often have legal matters to take care of in other cities.
"Weston Benshoof does no tax work at all," said Mark Rochefort, a founding partner of the firm. "There are over 80 tax lawyers at Alston & Bird, so for any issues we have for Exxon Mobil that involves tax matters, we will be able to respond promptly and with expertise, whereas before we were not able to respond to those issues."
In addition to Exxon Mobil Corp., other Weston Benshoof clients include Chevron Corp. and DuPont.
Industry insiders said the coupling between Southern-based and Los Angeles regional firms may be a natural fit because they have similar business structures.
In the past, powerhouse New York firms tried to move into the L.A. market, but couldn't bill high enough rates so they've moved on. That leaves room for expansion for firms that charge more modest fees.
"It gives them more opportunity in a market that has less high-rate work and more middle-market work," said legal recruiter Dan Hatch, a partner with search firm Major Lindsey & Africa LLC.
But as these Southern firms attempt to make a name for themselves in L.A., they will find themselves competing in an already crowded legal market.
Forty-five full-service national firms have offices in L.A., mostly downtown or Century City. During the past five years, 20 out-of-state firms have established offices in California, bringing the total number to 60.
It could be a struggle.
"Firms that come here won't have a lot of brand," Hatch said. "And you are competing with a lot of very serious players that are already here."
But firms based in the South are proceeding nevertheless.
"As we sat and looked at how Hunton should look over the next 10 years, we said 'we can't not have an office in Southern California,'" said Wally Martinez, Hunton & Williams' firm-wide managing partner.
The combination between Alston & Bird and Weston Benshoof becomes official Sept. 1, just 10 days shy of Weston Benshoof's 24th anniversary as an L.A. firm.
Alston & Bird houses attorneys in seven offices nationwide, and will be adding Los Angeles as its eighth. The firm's main practice areas include intellectual property, litigation, health care, energy, corporate and tax services and public policy law.
The addition of Weston & Benshoof bolsters its real estate and environmental capabilities.
Weston & Benshoof attorneys, some of whom are based in the firm's Westlake Village office, focus on climate change and sustainability, land use, real estate, water resource, energy and construction litigation, in addition to other areas.
"They have a broad litigation practice, and we view that as a great complement to our real estate and land use practice," Rochefort said.
While Alston & Bird chose to come into Los Angeles by acquiring a mid-size regional firm, Hunton & Williams' growth in Los Angeles has been achieved by scooping up single partners or small groups of lawyers from one firm.
The firm, which houses 1,000 attorneys in 19 offices throughout the United States, Europe and Asia, decided to open a Los Angeles outpost and initially focus on three practice areas: products liability defense, labor and employment class action defense and environmental law.
Martinez said Hunton & Williams broke ground in Los Angeles because the firm's clients could provide enough work to keep an office of lawyers busy.
"No matter how aggressive you want to be, growth has to be around clients and strategic practice fits," Martinez said.
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