Law Firms Continue to Expand Despite Poor Economy

Excerpted from the Legal Intelligencer: A tough economy doesn't necessarily mean expansion-minded firms are putting their plans on hold.

Blank Rome and K&L Gates each announced recently  the opening of an office in markets far from their respective home bases of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

For Blank Rome, the expansion means a presence away from its largely East Coast roots. The firm has offices mainly up and down the coast with the exception of Cincinnati and Hong Kong. It can now add Los Angeles to the list, bridging the gap between its mid-Atlantic base and a growing Hong Kong presence.

K&L Gates' foray into Singapore makes for the firm's fifth office in Asia and puts the firm at more than 70 legal professionals across those five offices. There are now about 200 attorneys in the firmwide Asia practice. The announcement comes just one day after K&L Gates' merger with Chicago-based Bell Boyd & Lloyd became official on March 1.

Firm managing partner Peter Kalis has often cited the firm's lack of debt as a reason for its ability to capitalize on opportunities in a down market.

Blank Rome managing partner Carl Buchholz said his firm's approach to growth has been a conservative one regardless of the market. When it opened the Hong Kong office about two years ago, it did so with only four attorneys focusing almost solely on maritime law. That office has now grown to 18 attorneys with a full-service practice, he said.

While it's expanding in one area, Blank Rome, like many firms, has done some trimming of staff and attorneys across a number of practices given the economy and anticipated client demand in 2009. Buchholz said that hasn't stopped the firm from looking at its overall strategic goals for the next few years. And California has been a big part of that strategy.

"We've done some trimming as well and are continuing to focus on what I call the 'daily blocking and tackling,'" Buchholz said. "At the same time, we're not taking our eye off the prize" by looking at where the firm needs to be "three, five or seven years from now."

Frank D'Amore of Attorney Career Catalysts said he is seeing firms split into two, distinct camps --

  • Those that are retrenching, looking to be cost sensitive and bulk up revenues.
  •  Those who are capitalizing on opportunities created by the down economy.

He said there is a great divide between the two and even firms who are looking to be opportunistic are doing so more in existing markets rather than looking to enter new ones.

There are opportunities for firms looking to grow, D'Amore said, particularly via acquisition of a smaller firm. He said many smaller firms are more receptive to merger talks in this economic climate than they may have been a few years ago.

All of the Blank Rom'es offices work together, but Buchholz said he sees an obvious connection between the Hong Kong and Los Angeles offices. The new office will also be a benefit to the firm's existing West Coast clients.

"California is one of the most dynamic markets in the country," Buchholz said in a statement. "Our Los Angeles office will provide the initial launch for our West Coast growth strategy, as well as natural synergy with our growing office in Hong Kong, as we continue to build our national and international platform. Blank Rome is already serving more than 200 clients with a California presence."

K&L Gates opened its Singapore office with the addition of DLA Piper partner Kevin J. Murphy. He will lead the office's corporate and restructuring practice and will be assisted by several of the firm's existing attorneys in other Asian offices as well as in London.

Murphy represents Asian and foreign clients on inbound and outbound cross-border matters, including investments and acquisitions, debt restructurings and public and private financings.

"The launch of our Singapore office during this major global economic correction is reflective of K&L Gates' strong commitment to Asia and our confidence in the continuing growth and development in the region," David K.Y. Tang, K&L Gates' managing partner, Asia, said in a statement. "Singapore is a recognized world-class financial center and we look forward to capitalizing on the opportunities an expanded Asia presence will bring our global clients."

K&L Gates first entered Asia in 1996 with the launch of its Hong Kong office, followed by offices in Beijing, Taipei and, in April 2008, Shanghai.


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