Four years ago, Sheldon Eisenberg decided to leave St. Louis-based Bryan Cave LLP, where he was a partner and leader of the L.A. litigation practice group, to start his own firm.

He recruited some of his Bryan Cave cohorts to form Eisenberg Raizman Thurston & Wong LLP, a Westwood boutique that he hoped would grow into a force in complex litigation. But Eisenberg admits now that he didn’t foresee the difficulties a six-attorney firm would have in landing large commercial cases.

“We were extremely busy when we started off, but by the end of 2009 it was clear that we were not growing the way we wanted to,” the 53-year-old said. “Having a large national firm behind you is an advantage. General counsel can tell CEOs that large firms are handling a $20 million or $30 million matter, as opposed to six good folks at this firm Eisenberg Raizman.”

So the firm began looking around late last year to fold into a larger firm. As a result, all six attorneys joined the Century City office of Philadelphia-based Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP earlier this month. They brought with them a collective book of business worth about $4 million.

Drinker Biddle opened its Century City office earlier this year after recruiting noted litigators George Caplan and Henry Shields Jr. away from Irell & Manella LLP. Eisenberg and his fellow name partner, David Raizman, knew Caplan and Shields from their own days at Irell and heard from them that Drinker Biddle was looking to build out its Century City office.

The addition of the Eisenberg Raizman group means Drinker Biddle’s L.A. presence has grown from three to 15 attorneys this year.

Andrew Kassner, the firm’s managing partner, said that the firm has targeted Los Angeles for growth. More moves could come in the next six months. The core work will be representing companies in labor and other business disputes, with an emphasis on the media and entertainment industry.

“Our strategic plan now calls for us to focus in California,” he said. “We really need to make sure we have the support and excellent litigation capability on the West Coast.”

Big Case Connection

Chicago-based Jenner & Block LLP is another national law firm seeking to expand its L.A. presence. The recent addition of former Kirkland & Ellis partner Nick Saros marks the 15th attorney and first patent litigator in the downtown L.A. office since it opened in April 2009.

Saros was recruited by office managing partner Rick Richmond, also a former Kirkland & Ellis partner. Though the two tend to work in different areas – Saros’ specialty is in patent law and Richmond has a more general litigation practice – they worked together on the team that represented local inventor Gary Michelson in his case against Medtronic Inc. Michelson won a $1.35 billion settlement, one of the largest patent settlements in history. Richmond said he was impressed by Saros during that case and others.

“He’s the real thing,” he said. “He’s an exceedingly strong strategist and analytical thinker in terms of understanding patents and processes and businesses.”

Saros, 40, has handled a broad range of patent cases but is particularly familiar with patents for Internet content delivery systems. He said his book of business was on the smaller end, and expects to start off assisting on existing matters.

“I’m looking forward to the long-term growth prospect here in Los Angeles and building upon an established group of litigators in Chicago,” he said.

Post-O’Melveny

In 36 years at the downtown L.A. office of O’Melveny & Myers LLP, Bob Willett claims he never thought of moving to another firm. During that time, he climbed the firm’s leadership ranks and served in a number of positions including chair of the partner admissions committee and chair of the partner compensation committee. For the past 10 years, he’s been the firm’s vice chair and then vice chair emeritus.

“The thought had never occurred to me (to move), even though we all get a lot of calls from folks offering to entice us away,” he said. “This has been my professional home.”

Now, the 67-year-old veteran is finally leaving – to become a judge. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office announced last week that it was appointing Willett to Los Angeles Superior Court.

“I had thought previously about a post-O’Melveny career in some form of public service,” he said. “This is one I think is uniquely suited to the objective of being in public service and my background in the law.”

Seth Aronson, chair of the firm’s securities litigation practice and former managing partner of the firm’s L.A. office, credited Willett with helping oversee O’Melveny’s growth during the past decade.

“It’s hard to imagine O’Melveny without Bob Willett,” Aronson said. “We’ve really expanded our firm in so many different respects over the past 10 years. … And he was in many respects the operational partner who was dealing with firm issues both on a macro and micro basis on a day-to-day basis.”

Staff reporter Alfred Lee can be reached at alee@labusinessjournal.com or at (323) 549-5225, ext. 221.

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