Chicago’s Winston & Strawn has been on a hiring spree in Los Angeles, netting a dozen attorneys in the last year. The addition earlier this month of Eva Davis, a co-founding partner of the corporate practice at Kirkland & Ellis’ L.A. office, marks a continuing of that spree – as well as a narrowing of focus for new hires.

Firm leaders gave L.A. Managing Partner Eric Sagerman the green light to expand last year, but after a flurry of hires across several practice areas, he decided to focus on corporate and private equity practices.

“We took a step back and said, Where do we need to grow now?” he said. “Eva is stepping in what we hope to be a growing corporate practice.”

Winston has been growing in Los Angeles as many other large national firms shrink their footprint. The firm now has 70 attorneys here, up from 58 at the beginning of last year.

Davis, who is chairwoman of her new firm’s West Coast private equity group, said lower rates and alternative fee flexibility were key reasons for her moves. Her hourly rates are 12 percent lower at her new firm, where she represents private equity firms, strategic buyers and portfolio companies in mergers and acquisitions and other deals ranging in value from $40 million to $500 million.

“I wanted a firm that focused squarely on the middle market and middle-market transactions,” she said. “I represent middle-market clients and they tend to be more price sensitive than large billion-plus deals.”

Building Momentum

One national firm that has been slow to establish an L.A. foothold is Philadelphia’s Ballard Spahr. It hopes the hiring of litigation Partner Peter L. Haviland from Kaye Scholer moves the needle.

“I think our decision to bring him on board should be read as a signal that we are committed to that area,” said firm Chairman Mark Stewart.

Ballard opened in Century City in 2007 but was slowed by the recession.

“The timing was unfortunate for us at the start,” Stewart said. “That office was opened as a real estate practice and just at probably the wrong time to start a real estate practice anywhere. So we had fits and starts for a few years.”

The firm has about a dozen attorneys in Los Angeles, and wants to build around litigation, real estate and intellectual property. It once had aspirations to build out a business and finance transactional practice but, like many other national firms, found that difficult in Los Angeles.

Haviland cited overlapping work with of one of his clients, DuPont, as well as the firm’s commitment to expanding in the region as reasons for his move.

“Ballard is very much wanting to expand their Los Angeles and California offices and wanted me to help with that expansion,” he said.

Haviland, who is black, stressed that the firm’s relatively high percentage of women and minority attorneys was also important to him, and cited the fact that the firm’s managing partner in Los Angeles is a black woman.

Haviland is just the latest partner to leave the L.A. outpost of Kaye Scholer, which is de-emphasizing its litigation practice here. That New York firm has lost nine of 16 partners in Los Angeles since the summer.

Boutique Opening

A smaller New York firm is looking to tap into the L.A. litigation market. Leader & Berkon, a 23-attorney boutique that focuses on commercial litigation, products liability and toxic tort cases, has opened in downtown Los Angeles.

Among its specialties in the toxic tort arena is asbestos litigation, and it was ongoing asbestos cases for one of its clients, Monroe, N.C.’s Imo Industries Inc., that were the driving force behind opening in Los Angeles.

The firm hired Bobbie Bailey from a Silicon Valley boutique to launch the office. Bailey is joined by two other attorneys.

Still, the firm wants to extend beyond asbestos work, said Joe Colao, a partner in the New York office. It has done work in other states for L.A. clients such as Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. and Live Nation Entertainment Inc.

“Although asbestos is the springboard here, we’re really looking to tap into the Los Angeles market from a commercial litigation standpoint, and the kinds of work we’ve done for companies like DuPont, Morgan Stanley and Guardian Life Insurance,” he said.

Bailey echoed that although 90 percent of his work is on the Imo litigation, he has his sights on more.

“Los Angeles is going to be one of the thriving, energetic markets for the next 15 to 20 years and I look at it as a place of opportunity,” he said.

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

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