Jim Beaubien, managing partner of Latham & Watkins’ L.A. offices, wants the firm to be the New York Yankees of L.A. law – and he’s George Steinbrenner.

Since becoming managing partner five years ago, Beaubien has focused on building Latham, founded 81 years ago, into a powerhouse by both signing top free agents and developing young talent.

His latest coup was engineering the defection late last year of 16 members of rival O’Melveny & Myers’ entertainment, sports and media practice, including six of its eight partners. Led by Joseph Calabrese and Christopher Brearton, the group is considered by many to be among the best in the business. More acquisitions in the litigation and private equity realm could be in the offing.

“I’m building the Yankees,” Beaubien said. “You can come play for the Yankees or you can play against them.”

To get to that level, though, he has faced a long rebuilding project.

The firm peaked at 312 attorneys in Los Angeles in 2008, just before the Great Recession hit, and, until this year, saw its head count decline every year since. At 214 lawyers last year, it had lost nearly one-third of its prerecession attorneys. With the pickup of the bulk of O’Melveny’s entertainment practice, it has risen this year to 221.

Founded in 1934, Latham, the city’s fifth-largest firm, grew slowly in its early years. While it expanded domestically, it wasn’t until 2000 that it opened its first office outside the United States. Today, the firm has 32 offices around the world, including Germany, France, China, Saudi Arabia, Spain and London, to name a few.

It historically has grown in spurts, often adding entire practice groups in bulk. The decision to build its entertainment practice by acquisition rather than developing the talent in-house reflected an approach it took in 2010 when it launched its international energy industry practice in Houston by bringing in eight partners from three different firms: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Baker Botts and Vinson & Elkins.

Business approach

It is a strategy that has benefits, but typically only the largest law firms have the resources to pull it off.

“It’s not like they would have to spend a year or two or three developing that practice,” Michael S. Sherman, a veteran entertainment lawyer in the Century City office of Reed Smith, said of the hires from O’Melveny. “If you’re adding one or two people, you would have to build a group around them. The senior people in that group have been together for a number of years, and they just simply have to pick up all their stuff and move from one place in Century City to another.”

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