Unsung law firm giant steps into the light

Unsung law firm giant steps into the light
Eschewing flashy office space and embracing insurance work, Lewis Brisbois has blossomed

By Kylie Reynolds
Daily Journal Staff Writer

Last year, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP hoisted a sign onto the side of its building that flanks the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. It’s hard to miss the sign, which bears the L.A.-based law firm’s name and lights up so brightly that neighbors finally had to ask the firm to dim the sign in the evening.

Partner Sheldon Sloan likes to say it’s the first time many people learned of Lewis Brisbois.

There’s likely some truth in that statement: Lewis Brisbois may be the largest Los Angeles law firm that few know anything about. Perhaps it’s because the firm’s bread and butter is insurance litigation, a world of low-rate but undeniably stable work that’s often viewed as less prestigious in the legal hierarchy. “If a law firm’s clients are Google and Apple and IBM and Johnson & Johnson and Coca Cola, that is perceived differently than if a law firm’s clients are insurance companies,” said Sandy Lechtick, president of Los Angeles-based legal search firm Esquire Inc., who has worked with Lewis Brisbois for more than 20 years. Or maybe it’s because of the firm’s low-overhead approach, which, along with other cost-cutting measures, trades espresso baristas for self-serve coffee machines.

But on the eve of Lewis Brisbois’ 35th birthday, the firm continues to top some of its silk-stocking counterparts in terms of size. For the second year in a row, Lewis Brisbois has boasted the largest attorney headcount in Los Angeles – 274 lawyers, compared to second-place Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP’s 270, according to Daily Journal reporting. It’s edged out Morrison & Foerster LLP as the second largest firm in the state, trailing behind only Latham & Watkins LLP.

Lewis Brisbois’ rise has been nothing short of meteoric in the last 15 or so years, growing to more than 900 attorneys in 31 offices nationally. At a time when many large firms are reporting departing partners and declining revenues, such as in recently released financials from Bingham McCutchen LLP and Patton Boggs LLP, Lewis Brisbois has found a sweet spot handling lower-priced work for middle-market companies. With strong numbers during the recession, the firm has been able to take some risks in its push to become a full-service shop. Once an insurance firm in California, Lewis Brisbois has branched out to everything from an Indian nations law and policy practice in Washington, D.C. to, most recently, a life sciences practice in Philadelphia.

“I think they’ve transitioned from insurance defense to full service,” said Peter Zeughauser, a Newport Beach-based legal consultant. “They appear to be prospering using that strategy for their practice, and that’s what’s important.”

To a get a sense of the firm, you have to start at the top: firm co-founder Robert “Bob” F. Lewis.

Lewis is a soft-spoken man. At 76, he may be one of the more inconspicuous firm leaders you’ll meet: On a recent morning in Lewis Brisbois’ Los Angeles office, it was easy to miss Lewis standing at a desk, answering a phone among secretaries, dressed in a simple plaid shirt and pants.

But there’s no doubt that Lewis commands the firm from his corner office in Los Angeles. “Bob has a very distinct personality. He’s very calm, people perceive him as fair, willing to listen,” said Jana Lubert, a Los Angeles partner and the firm’s general counsel. “That personality has filtered down through the firm.”

He was a young managing partner at Overton, Lyman & Prince LLP, Los Angeles’ oldest law firm. A maritime lawyer, it was there that he fell into legal and medical malpractice work for insurance companies, accompanied by four young attorneys: Roy Brisbois, Christopher Bisgaard, R. Gaylord “Bob” Smith and David Parker. But the all-too-familiar rate debate between Overton’s insurance and noninsurance practices soon spurred conflict, Lewis said. So on April Fool’s Day in 1979, Lewis and his pack broke off from Overton. Along with two more attorneys, the seven lawyers formed what was then called Lewis D’Amato Brisbois & Bisgaard.

“Some people thought it was a good day,” Lewis said with a slight chuckle.

The firm borrowed $400,000 to get started – and it took only six months before the money nearly ran out. In hindsight, the firm’s financial woes foreshadowed what would later become one of its claims to fame: It was expanding too quickly. The expansion was less by design and more out of necessity, Lewis said. He left Overton with more than 400 cases representing attorneys, and as more insurers came into the market looking for counsel, the firm had to hire laterals to handle the workload. American International Group Inc. and The Travelers Cos. Inc. were among some of Lewis Brisbois’ first clients and continue to be clients to this day. It got by in part with the help of an insurance client that paid the firm monthly in the beginning.

“I was happy to make payroll,” Lewis said. “We weren’t thinking about expanding.”

It only took a few years before the firm launched its second office, in San Francisco, but the real expansion didn’t come until the firm moved out of the state and into New York in 2002, said Duane Musfelt, one of the founding attorneys and a San Francisco partner. “We went to our client base and asked them how we could service that base,” Lewis said. “By the time we decided to go national, we were a well-diversified firm.”

Now, the firm has never denied its insurance roots, and it didn’t take part in rebranding efforts in 2011 like other insurance-focused firms trying to shed the work’s less-prestigious stigma – Sedgwick LLP and Haight Brown & Bonesteel LLP among them. With its insurance practice still accounting for about 60 percent of the firm’s work, Lewis said, it’s not turning its back on insurance clients any time soon. But when asked his thoughts on the legal community boiling down Lewis Brisbois’ reputation to insurance defense, Lewis shut down the conversation with two words: “They’re mistaken.”

If insurance is still the firm’s “backbone,” as its partners say, then Lewis Brisbois has set out to build a whole skeleton. It’s added significant strength in practices such as labor and employment, intellectual property, energy and real estate.

It’s been the firm’s style to pick up groups to launch not only practices but also offices. Last month, for example, Lewis Brisbois put down roots outside of Philadelphia with a 14-attorney team from insurance law boutique Nelson Levine de Luca & Hamilton LLC. Partner John Mullen leads both the office and the firm’s data privacy and network security practice, while partner John Salvucci heads the firm’s new life sciences practice.

Lewis Brisbois has undoubtedly delved into some unusual locales – it may be one of the few large law firms with a presence in Chicago, Lafayette, La., and Seattle – but it’s been a “good strategy” to grab these smaller groups, said John Childers, a Santa Monica-based legal consultant. By growing larger, the firm has been able to carve out a space in an industry that is increasingly divided between the top-tier firms and everybody else. “If you’re going to be a low-cost provider, there are economies of scale,” he said. “[Lewis Brisbois] seems to be the ones saying ‘If we’re going to do this right, we need to be the behemoth.'”

Partners attribute the firm’s expansion to Bob Lewis’ vision. Since founding the firm, Lewis has made it a point to “control and contain our costs” – a reputation the firm carries in the legal community, for better or worse. He has dressed the walls of his offices with stock scenes of landscapes rather than “Monets,” as he put it in an interview with the Daily Journal. And a Lewis Brisbois partner’s paycheck likely boasts fewer digits than some of his or her peers – profit per partner at the firm is reportedly $720,000, though firm leaders declined to disclose financial data.

Yet partners seemingly don’t mind the lack of mahogany conference rooms or billing $300 an hour. Few partners leave Lewis Brisbois. In fact, there wasn’t a single partner departure from the Los Angeles office last year, according to firm leaders and Daily Journal reporting. More than a few attorneys used “collegial” and “friendly” to describe their experience at the firm during conversations.

Lewis said the firm’s retention is a product of hiring “good lawyers” – regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation – who fit well in the firm. While many firms make that claim, it’s reflected in Lewis Brisbois’ diversity ranking: It has come out on top in recent years among law firm diversity surveys.

“The attorney who has a nice, healthy book of business is mobile,” said Lewis, leaning forward in his chair. “You have to treat them fairly.”

It’s an idea that has stuck with the so-called “second generation” of Lewis Brisbois leaders. Take Los Angeles managing partner Timothy Graves, a North Carolina import with a Southern drawl who started with the firm straight out of law school in 1985. At one point, while discussing the firm’s philosophy about creating a “nice” work environment, Graves turned to a bookshelf in his office. “That book over there,” Graves said, pointing to a white-spined book, “that’s the rule that we follow.” He stopped just short of saying its title: “The No Asshole Rule.”

To the firm’s benefit, its expansion hardly slowed during the latest economic recession. Lewis Brisbois has brought on more than 220 attorneys since 2008, according to firm data, which was an anomaly during a time when many large firms were shedding both partners and associates.

Partners aren’t afraid to say they benefited from the recession: “It was an outstanding opportunity and one we continue to capitalize on,” Graves said. The firm already had the lower rates increasingly desired by cost-conscious clients, and Graves had pioneered the firm’s alternative fee arrangements long before the idea became part of the legal industry’s lexicon. They’re up to about 28 “substantial” alternative fee programs, he said, which grew in popularity during the recession.

Not to mention the firm’s insurance practice, which Graves said “kept the lights on.” Insurance work was plentiful during the recession, which benefited a number of firms with strong insurance practices, such as San Francisco-based Gordon & Rees LLP and New York-based Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP. Lewis Brisbois has been able to spin that work into referrals for noninsurance matters.

“Every time you have a client, an insurer, that’s an opportunity to do something else with that client,” Lubert said. “From our perspective, those are just ways to expand our business.”

One such case is the $50 million civil suit brought against the Los Angeles Dodgers LLC by Bryan Stow, a paramedic and San Francisco Giants fan who was beaten and critically injured in the Dodger Stadium parking lot by two men. Los Angeles partner Dana Fox is lead counsel representing the Dodgers on the case, which Lewis said could feed into handling other work for the Dodgers. Stow v. Los Angeles Dodgers LLC et al., BC462127 (L.A. Super Ct., filed May 24, 2011).

“Lewis Brisbois has done well in getting a lot of business that used to go upstream to more prestigious law firms, because the perception is that Lewis Brisbois gives better bang for the buck,” Lechtick said.

While the firm has worked to broaden its practice areas, not everyone in the legal community has yet noticed. But Lewis Brisbois doesn’t tend to pay attention to its reputation in the industry, good or bad, said Steve Lewis, a Los Angeles partner and Bob Lewis’ son. “I have a great deal of respect for O’Melveny, Gibson Dunn, Skadden Arps and the whole litany of law firms,” Bob Lewis said, “but I don’t worry about what they’re doing.”

Instead, the firm is focusing on where to expand next, with its sights set on Portland, Lewis said.

Glancing out his office windows, which overlook the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building’s expansive pond, Lewis said the firm has become far more conscious in its strategy over the last 20 years. But he’s now relying more on the younger partners, like Graves, to steer it going forward.

“Quite frankly … if I was killed on the way home tonight, this firm would not miss a beat,” he said.

kylie_reynolds@dailyjournal.com

Unsung law firm giant steps into the light

Eschewing flashy office space and embracing insurance work, Lewis Brisbois has blossomed

By Kylie Reynolds

Daily Journal Staff Writer

Last year, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP hoisted a sign onto the side of its building that flanks the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. It’s hard to miss the sign, which bears the L.A.-based law firm’s name and lights up so brightly that neighbors finally had to ask the firm to dim the sign in the evening.

Partner Sheldon Sloan likes to say it’s the first time many people learned of Lewis Brisbois.

There’s likely some truth in that statement: Lewis Brisbois may be the largest Los Angeles law firm that few know anything about. Perhaps it’s because the firm’s bread and butter is insurance litigation, a world of low-rate but undeniably stable work that’s often viewed as less prestigious in the legal hierarchy. “If a law firm’s clients are Google and Apple and IBM and Johnson & Johnson and Coca Cola, that is perceived differently than if a law firm’s clients are insurance companies,” said Sandy Lechtick, president of Los Angeles-based legal search firm Esquire Inc., who has worked with Lewis Brisbois for more than 20 years. Or maybe it’s because of the firm’s low-overhead approach, which, along with other cost-cutting measures, trades espresso baristas for self-serve coffee machines.

But on the eve of Lewis Brisbois’ 35th birthday, the firm continues to top some of its silk-stocking counterparts in terms of size. For the second year in a row, Lewis Brisbois has boasted the largest attorney headcount in Los Angeles – 274 lawyers, compared to second-place Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP’s 270, according to Daily Journal reporting. It’s edged out Morrison & Foerster LLP as the second largest firm in the state, trailing behind only Latham & Watkins LLP.

Lewis Brisbois’ rise has been nothing short of meteoric in the last 15 or so years, growing to more than 900 attorneys in 31 offices nationally. At a time when many large firms are reporting departing partners and declining revenues, such as in recently released financials from Bingham McCutchen LLP and Patton Boggs LLP, Lewis Brisbois has found a sweet spot handling lower-priced work for middle-market companies. With strong numbers during the recession, the firm has been able to take some risks in its push to become a full-service shop. Once an insurance firm in California, Lewis Brisbois has branched out to everything from an Indian nations law and policy practice in Washington, D.C. to, most recently, a life sciences practice in Philadelphia.

“I think they’ve transitioned from insurance defense to full service,” said Peter Zeughauser, a Newport Beach-based legal consultant. “They appear to be prospering using that strategy for their practice, and that’s what’s important.”

To a get a sense of the firm, you have to start at the top: firm co-founder Robert “Bob” F. Lewis.

Lewis is a soft-spoken man. At 76, he may be one of the more inconspicuous firm leaders you’ll meet: On a recent morning in Lewis Brisbois’ Los Angeles office, it was easy to miss Lewis standing at a desk, answering a phone among secretaries, dressed in a simple plaid shirt and pants.

But there’s no doubt that Lewis commands the firm from his corner office in Los Angeles. “Bob has a very distinct personality. He’s very calm, people perceive him as fair, willing to listen,” said Jana Lubert, a Los Angeles partner and the firm’s general counsel. “That personality has filtered down through the firm.”

He was a young managing partner at Overton, Lyman & Prince LLP, Los Angeles’ oldest law firm. A maritime lawyer, it was there that he fell into legal and medical malpractice work for insurance companies, accompanied by four young attorneys: Roy Brisbois, Christopher Bisgaard, R. Gaylord “Bob” Smith and David Parker. But the all-too-familiar rate debate between Overton’s insurance and noninsurance practices soon spurred conflict, Lewis said. So on April Fool’s Day in 1979, Lewis and his pack broke off from Overton. Along with two more attorneys, the seven lawyers formed what was then called Lewis D’Amato Brisbois & Bisgaard.

“Some people thought it was a good day,” Lewis said with a slight chuckle.

The firm borrowed $400,000 to get started – and it took only six months before the money nearly ran out. In hindsight, the firm’s financial woes foreshadowed what would later become one of its claims to fame: It was expanding too quickly. The expansion was less by design and more out of necessity, Lewis said. He left Overton with more than 400 cases representing attorneys, and as more insurers came into the market looking for counsel, the firm had to hire laterals to handle the workload. American International Group Inc. and The Travelers Cos. Inc. were among some of Lewis Brisbois’ first clients and continue to be clients to this day. It got by in part with the help of an insurance client that paid the firm monthly in the beginning.

“I was happy to make payroll,” Lewis said. “We weren’t thinking about expanding.”

It only took a few years before the firm launched its second office, in San Francisco, but the real expansion didn’t come until the firm moved out of the state and into New York in 2002, said Duane Musfelt, one of the founding attorneys and a San Francisco partner. “We went to our client base and asked them how we could service that base,” Lewis said. “By the time we decided to go national, we were a well-diversified firm.”

Now, the firm has never denied its insurance roots, and it didn’t take part in rebranding efforts in 2011 like other insurance-focused firms trying to shed the work’s less-prestigious stigma – Sedgwick LLP and Haight Brown & Bonesteel LLP among them. With its insurance practice still accounting for about 60 percent of the firm’s work, Lewis said, it’s not turning its back on insurance clients any time soon. But when asked his thoughts on the legal community boiling down Lewis Brisbois’ reputation to insurance defense, Lewis shut down the conversation with two words: “They’re mistaken.”

If insurance is still the firm’s “backbone,” as its partners say, then Lewis Brisbois has set out to build a whole skeleton. It’s added significant strength in practices such as labor and employment, intellectual property, energy and real estate.

It’s been the firm’s style to pick up groups to launch not only practices but also offices. Last month, for example, Lewis Brisbois put down roots outside of Philadelphia with a 14-attorney team from insurance law boutique Nelson Levine de Luca & Hamilton LLC. Partner John Mullen leads both the office and the firm’s data privacy and network security practice, while partner John Salvucci heads the firm’s new life sciences practice.

Lewis Brisbois has undoubtedly delved into some unusual locales – it may be one of the few large law firms with a presence in Chicago, Lafayette, La., and Seattle – but it’s been a “good strategy” to grab these smaller groups, said John Childers, a Santa Monica-based legal consultant. By growing larger, the firm has been able to carve out a space in an industry that is increasingly divided between the top-tier firms and everybody else. “If you’re going to be a low-cost provider, there are economies of scale,” he said. “[Lewis Brisbois] seems to be the ones saying ‘If we’re going to do this right, we need to be the behemoth.'”

Partners attribute the firm’s expansion to Bob Lewis’ vision. Since founding the firm, Lewis has made it a point to “control and contain our costs” – a reputation the firm carries in the legal community, for better or worse. He has dressed the walls of his offices with stock scenes of landscapes rather than “Monets,” as he put it in an interview with the Daily Journal. And a Lewis Brisbois partner’s paycheck likely boasts fewer digits than some of his or her peers – profit per partner at the firm is reportedly $720,000, though firm leaders declined to disclose financial data.

Yet partners seemingly don’t mind the lack of mahogany conference rooms or billing $300 an hour. Few partners leave Lewis Brisbois. In fact, there wasn’t a single partner departure from the Los Angeles office last year, according to firm leaders and Daily Journal reporting. More than a few attorneys used “collegial” and “friendly” to describe their experience at the firm during conversations.

Lewis said the firm’s retention is a product of hiring “good lawyers” – regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation – who fit well in the firm. While many firms make that claim, it’s reflected in Lewis Brisbois’ diversity ranking: It has come out on top in recent years among law firm diversity surveys.

“The attorney who has a nice, healthy book of business is mobile,” said Lewis, leaning forward in his chair. “You have to treat them fairly.”

It’s an idea that has stuck with the so-called “second generation” of Lewis Brisbois leaders. Take Los Angeles managing partner Timothy Graves, a North Carolina import with a Southern drawl who started with the firm straight out of law school in 1985. At one point, while discussing the firm’s philosophy about creating a “nice” work environment, Graves turned to a bookshelf in his office. “That book over there,” Graves said, pointing to a white-spined book, “that’s the rule that we follow.” He stopped just short of saying its title: “The No Asshole Rule.”

To the firm’s benefit, its expansion hardly slowed during the latest economic recession. Lewis Brisbois has brought on more than 220 attorneys since 2008, according to firm data, which was an anomaly during a time when many large firms were shedding both partners and associates.

Partners aren’t afraid to say they benefited from the recession: “It was an outstanding opportunity and one we continue to capitalize on,” Graves said. The firm already had the lower rates increasingly desired by cost-conscious clients, and Graves had pioneered the firm’s alternative fee arrangements long before the idea became part of the legal industry’s lexicon. They’re up to about 28 “substantial” alternative fee programs, he said, which grew in popularity during the recession.

Not to mention the firm’s insurance practice, which Graves said “kept the lights on.” Insurance work was plentiful during the recession, which benefited a number of firms with strong insurance practices, such as San Francisco-based Gordon & Rees LLP and New York-based Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP. Lewis Brisbois has been able to spin that work into referrals for noninsurance matters.

“Every time you have a client, an insurer, that’s an opportunity to do something else with that client,” Lubert said. “From our perspective, those are just ways to expand our business.”

One such case is the $50 million civil suit brought against the Los Angeles Dodgers LLC by Bryan Stow, a paramedic and San Francisco Giants fan who was beaten and critically injured in the Dodger Stadium parking lot by two men. Los Angeles partner Dana Fox is lead counsel representing the Dodgers on the case, which Lewis said could feed into handling other work for the Dodgers. Stow v. Los Angeles Dodgers LLC et al., BC462127 (L.A. Super Ct., filed May 24, 2011).

“Lewis Brisbois has done well in getting a lot of business that used to go upstream to more prestigious law firms, because the perception is that Lewis Brisbois gives better bang for the buck,” Lechtick said.

While the firm has worked to broaden its practice areas, not everyone in the legal community has yet noticed. But Lewis Brisbois doesn’t tend to pay attention to its reputation in the industry, good or bad, said Steve Lewis, a Los Angeles partner and Bob Lewis’ son. “I have a great deal of respect for O’Melveny, Gibson Dunn, Skadden Arps and the whole litany of law firms,” Bob Lewis said, “but I don’t worry about what they’re doing.”

Instead, the firm is focusing on where to expand next, with its sights set on Portland, Lewis said.

Glancing out his office windows, which overlook the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building’s expansive pond, Lewis said the firm has become far more conscious in its strategy over the last 20 years. But he’s now relying more on the younger partners, like Graves, to steer it going forward.

“Quite frankly … if I was killed on the way home tonight, this firm would not miss a beat,” he said.

kylie_reynolds@dailyjournal.com

 

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