Akerman Senterfitt struggles for footing in Los Angeles

Most of the firm’s shareholders leave as it struggles to find a niche, but leaders are hopeful as it focuses on representing banks in foreclosure lawsuits.  
By Andrew McIntyre
Daily Journal Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES – The City of Angels has historically been a difficult place for out-of-state law firms to find firm footing. Over the past three years, Orlando- based Akerman Senterfitt LLP has been the latest to slip as most of its Los Angeles shareholders have departed.

Well known in Florida for its real estate work, Akerman came to Los Angeles through a 2006 merger with construction boutique Wickwire Gavin LLP, which at the time had offices in Los Angeles, Virginia and Wisconsin.

In late 2007, the firm’s Los Angeles office included five shareholders and one of counsel. By 2009, the office had nine shareholders, according to the firm.

But now, Akerman’s L.A. office is down to one shareholder – who lists an out-of-state phone number – and one of counsel, seven associates and one staff attorney. The firm has added attorneys in the office since late 2010, when it was down to four lawyers, but most have been associates.

Akerman is one of many out-of-state firms that has struggled to attract and retain partners in a market in which standing out among strong incumbents is difficult. Major, Lindsey & Africa recruiter Peter Ocko in Los Angeles said out-of-state firms have to convince local clients that they’re different.

But despite having lost nearly all its L.A. partners since 2009, the firm’s chief executive, Andrew M. Smulian, is happy with the firm’s Los Angeles strategy.

“I don’t have a complete crystal ball,” Smulian said when asked about the future of the Los Angeles office. “The current strategy that we have seems to be working.” He said the vision is to continue to be “client-driven.

Eight of the office’s 10 L.A. attorneys seem to be fully rooted in California. The office’s managing shareholder, Justin D. Balser, lists offices in Los Angeles and Denver, and one associate, Charles K. LaPlante, is not yet admitted to practice law in California.

Two of the 10 L.A. lawyers declined to comment for this story and the other eight did not return phone and email requests for comment. Market observers said firms have to have a plan in order to succeed in what is a very competitive and difficult space.

“If a law firm is going to expand in a highly competitive and challenging market, they have to have a great reason to be here,” said Sandy Lechtick, a recruiter with Esquire Inc. in Woodland Hills. “They have to have a well-crafted ability to execute, because there are so many sexy games in town and so many outstanding law firms that really have a well laid out game plan and have existing clients.

Lyndon Parker of attorney placement firm Mestel & Co., said he had “no idea” why Akerman had an office in L.A. “You have to have a reason to be here,” he said.

Asked about the loss of so many shareholders, Smulian noted the firm’s overall attorney count in L.A. is where it was when the office opened in 2006.

“We know it’s a tough market for new entrants,” he said. “Los Angeles is important… We are looking for more lawyers to add.

Various out-of-state firms have found it difficult to find traction in Los Angeles. Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, both based in New York, opened L.A. offices in 1988; Devevoise closed its office in 1996 and Cadwalader did the same in 1998. New York-based Shearman & Sterling LLP, which has offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco, opened in L.A. in 1985 and closed in 1998.

And New York-based Kelley Drye & Warren LLP came to L.A. in 1984, closed in 2003 and returned last year. It closed in 2003 due to its reliance on Japan- focused work during that country’s financial crisis, according to Andy White, managing partner of Kelley Drye’s Los Angeles office.

Initially Akerman’s L.A. office covered a range of practice areas, including construction, real estate and environmental law. Now all 10 of its Los Angeles attorneys work exclusively in one practice group: consumer finance litigation and compliance.

Smulian said changes in the economy and difficulties in the real estate market contributed to the decision to close its Los Angeles real estate and construction practices.

Akerman’s L.A. lawyers defend mortgage loan originators, servicers and investors in class and individual lawsuits, bankruptcy adversary cases, contested foreclosures and regulatory compliance matters, according to the firm’s website. The lawyers currently are representing defendants Bank of America Corp., Countrywide Financial Corp. and Bank of New York Mellon Corp., as well as Bank of America, Bank of New York Mellon and ReconTrust Co. NA, in foreclosure suits filed earlier this month.

Felicia Brashears v. Bank of America Home Loans et al., 12cv6760 (C.D. Cal., filed Aug. 6, 2012); Beebe et al v. Bank of America, NA et al., 12cv1964 (S.D. Cal., filed Aug. 6, 2012). The Fort Lauderdale-based chair of the national consumer finance litigation and compliance practice group did not respond to requests for comment.

“Akerman is still active in Los Angeles, but it has decided to focus its practice on an area in which it has substantial business, which makes sense because it’s much more profitable for them,” said Best Best & Krieger LLP of counsel Nowland C. Hong, who left Akerman’s L.A. office in 2010 as it was whittling down its practice area offerings. Smulian said Akerman is continuing to expand the consumer finance litigation and compliance practice group, which now has more than 100 lawyers nationwide.

Of counsel Todd A. Boock was the latest to depart the L.A. office, leaving in May to join Blank Rome LLP.

Akerman has more than 500 attorneys in 19 offices, 10 of which are in Florida. Its other western offices are in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Denver.

andrew_mcintyre@dailyjournal.com

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