Three months after Miami-based Greenberg Traurig LLP left Santa Monica’s Water Garden office complex for Century City, Boston’s Bingham McCutchen LLP has reduced its footprint in that same facility.

Bingham moved from one office in the Water Garden to another July 16. The new space is about 19,000 square feet, compared with about 85,000 square feet in the former location. The firm moved there in 2007 after merging with Alschuler Grossman.

“We had too much space at the time of the Bingham-Alschuler combination,” Rick Welch, Southern California managing partner, said in an e-mail statement to the Business Journal. “However, we have and will continue to operate the two offices (downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica) as a unit.”

In 2007, 90-attorney Santa Monica firm Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan split in two. One half, Alschuler Grossman, merged with Bingham, which opened a Santa Monica office with 40 lawyers to add to its sizable presence downtown. Larry Stein and Robert Kahan opened a West Coast office for New York’s Dreier LLP, subleasing space from Bingham, according to industry sources.

But some of the Alschuler attorneys left after the merger, while others moved to Bingham’s downtown office, reducing Bingham’s head count in Santa Monica to 26 attorneys today. Meanwhile, the Dreier firm dissolved after the 2008 arrest of founding partner Marc Dreier on fraud charges. (He was later convicted.) All of these factors reduced Bingham’s need for space in Santa Monica.

But Welch added in his statement that the firm, which has about 90 attorneys in the L.A. area, remains committed to its Westside office.

“Having a major presence on the Westside, which is such an important area for the Los Angeles economy, helps us better serve and interact with a wide range of firm clients, not just Santa Monica clients,” he said.

In April, Greenberg Traurig left about 100,000 square feet in the Water Garden to move to about 70,000 square feet in Century City.

Seoul Opening

Downtown L.A. firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP has become one of the first three law firms approved by the South Korean government to open an overseas office in Seoul.

Though the office won’t be up and running until mid-August, office manager Seth (Byoung Soo) Kim has in the meantime been acting on the firm’s behalf in Seoul, meeting with current and potential clients.

“Except for many of the large corporations, most Korean companies have not had a chance to deal with U.S. firms directly,” he said. “So now they can have in-person meetings that will help them deal with the legal issues they are facing in the United States.”

The passage last year of the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement opened Korea’s borders to foreign law firms. American lawyers see growing opportunity there, as Korean companies upped their spending on foreign law firms from $697 million in 2006 to more than $1 billion in 2010, according to the Bank of Korea.

After applying for entry at the beginning of the year, Sheppard Mullin gained necessary approvals earlier this month along with Boston’s Ropes & Gray LLP and London’s Clifford Chance LLP. Sheppard plans to have between five to eight attorneys there by the end of the year.

Many other firms are at various stages of the application process, including downtown L.A. firms O’Melveny & Myers LLP and Paul Hastings LLP.

Sheppard Mullin also opened a Chicago office this month with about a dozen lawyers, and last year opened offices in Beijing and London. Seoul would be the firm’s 16th office in five countries. The firm did not have a presence outside of California until 2003.

Larry Braun, a partner on Sheppard Mullin’s executive committee, said the firm has also looked at Europe for further expansion. New offices would be determined by demand, which is what happened in Chicago and Seoul, where the firm already has clients.

“Our expansion is driven by client needs, not opening up offices to have offices,” he said.

Rebuilding

Last year, New York’s Chadbourne & Parke LLP lost more than a dozen attorneys specializing in project finance and renewable energy in its downtown L.A. office to the local office of Washington, D.C.-based Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

The departures left Chadbourne with about five attorneys in Los Angeles and without a project finance group. In an effort to rebuild those capabilities, it is bringing on two project finance partners specializing in renewable energy: Paul Kaufman and Evelyn Lim.

Kaufman, previously the executive vice president for transactions at the North American development arm of French utility company Électricité de France S.A., and Lim, formerly general counsel at Portland, Ore., renewable energy company Element Power US LLC, will start Aug. 1.

“Our plan is to grow that practice,” said Kaufman, 53. “Chadbourne has an amazing foundation for growth and we’re hoping to build on that, not just with additional representation but additional people in the office.”

Robin Ball, managing partner of Chadbourne’s L.A. office, said that the firm’s first priority in L.A. is building out the new project finance team, but that it may also look at adding attorneys in compatible areas such as real estate.

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

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