Attorney William Lancaster is suing Seyfarth Shaw LLP, claiming the law firm stripped him of his equity partnership status after alleged slip-ups in a case involving celebrity martial arts instructor Billy Blanks.

Lancaster, a commercial litigator who now works as an income partner in the firm’s Century City office, filed the suit Nov. 25 in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Lancaster claims that Seyfarth forced him to relinquish his equity status – and instead made him an income partner with a reduced annual base salary of $250,000 – after a jury awarded Blanks $38.3 million in a legal malpractice suit against the firm in 2006. A state appellate court threw out the multimillion-dollar verdict this year.

Blanks originally hired Seyfarth to represent him in a dispute with Jeffrey Greenfield, his former business manager, to recover $10.6 million in commission that Blanks claimed Greenfield had kept without having the right to do so.

Lancaster then filed a suit on behalf of Blanks in Los Angeles Superior Court instead of with the state Labor Commission, as required by state law regulating talent agents, according to Blanks’ suit against Seyfarth. When the one-year statute of limitations expired, Blanks had no recourse.

The firm had pressured Lancaster to boost his billable hours, and Superior Court suits take longer than Labor Commission cases, said Michael Avenatti, a partner in the Newport Beach office of Eagan O’Malley & Avenatti LLP, who is representing Lancaster.

“This case is about the management of the firm placing the pursuit of profits over their client’s interest,” Avenatti said.

Seyfarth attorneys believe the suit is without merit and the firm will vigorously defend it, a Seyfarth spokesman said in a statement to the Business Journal.

Shifting Careers

When Rachael Wexler joined Goodwin Procter LLP nearly three years ago, she helped the Boston firm establish a presence in the L.A. legal market. But the corporate attorney has left Goodwin to help grow another business.

Wexler joined Sunlight Planet LLC last month, a consulting firm for renewable energy companies she co-founded with longtime business associate Paul Le Blanc.

“I left Goodwin to take advantage of what I believe are new existing market opportunities,” said Wexler, who is serving as chief executive of Sunlight Planet.

The Venice firm focuses on finding finance sources for owners and developers of large-scale renewable energy projects. Once a project gets funded, Sunlight Planet’s sister company helps manage the project to bring it in on time and within budget.

When Wexler practiced as a partner in the Century City office of Goodwin, she represented the energy industry and technology companies in financial transactions and business matters.

“This is a great opportunity to bring to bear my legal skills, entrepreneurial instincts and business judgment,” Wexler said, “and hopefully do some good.”

Another New Role

Jennifer Jackson is the new managing partner in the Santa Monica office of Bryan Cave LLP.

She joined the firm in 1997 as a fresh-faced associate and became partner in 2006.

She takes over the managing partner role from Jeff Modisett, who served in the position for five years.

“I thought it would bring an interesting dynamic to the practice,” Jackson said. “This is a different set of challenges and skills that I wanted to develop.”

Jackson will continue to maintain her commercial litigation practice.

Legal Space

L.A. law firms are expected to be doing some major real estate planning over the course of 2010.

That’s because local firms now have unused space thanks to the recession, which forced most to downsize their ranks.

“We are seeing more law firms put space on the market, and are anticipating that firms will put space on the market next year,” said Whitley Collins, Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.’s senior managing director for the L.A. area.

The local market has about 500,000 square feet of built-out law firm space available, according to Jones Lang LaSalle’s 2009 report on the legal real estate market, which was released last month. L.A. law firms are one of the biggest users of commercial real estate, occupying about 27 percent of Class A office space in the region.

But as law firms laid off attorneys and support staff this year, Collins said firms have been looking for ways to reduce real estate costs.

“As we go into 2010, a lot of law firms will be pondering, ‘What do we do? Do we sublet some space or do we move and try to get more efficient?’” Collins said. “It will be a big year for law firms. All of them have that problem of what do we do going forward.”

Staff reporter Alexa Hyland can be reached at ahyland@labusinessjournal.com or at (323) 549-5225, ext. 235.

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