|Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2011|
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Managing Multiple Offices
is a Complex Process
After braving the recession of the 1980s, several Oregon law firms countered the economic downturn by expanding into new geographic markets. Some opened additional offices within the state, while others opted for a regional, national and even international presence.
For most firms, clients — both existing and potential — drove the decision to expand geographically. Many firms have seen an evolution in the types of business interests they represent, and others have capitalized on relationships with lawyers who already were established in an attractive new market.
While technology has made it easier to conduct business from multiple locations, plenty of challenges exist when it comes to maintaining a consistent corporate culture, ensuring seamless operations, and keeping employees connected when they may work hundreds, or even thousands, of miles apart.
BENEFITS OF A BROADER REACH
During its 104-year history, Stoel Rives has grown through multiple mergers and now has 400 attorneys working in 11 offices in seven states. The railroad industry made up the bulk of its business in the early 1900s, and its practice specialties evolved to include banking, forest products and technology, and renewable energy, among others. As the Portland firm grew, so did the broad range of private and public interests it represented throughout the state.
In 1987, with a growing number of Seattle-based firms opening offices in Portland, Stoel Rives decided to repay the favor by opening an office in Seattle. A merger helped the firm gain a foothold in the Emerald City and, since then, Salt Lake City, Boise, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, Lake Tahoe, Minneapolis, Anchorage and Vancouver, Wash.
Bob Van Brocklin, who joined Stoel Rives as an associate just before the Seattle expansion and now serves as its managing partner and chief executive officer, says each merger involved a firm smaller than Stoel Rives. In addition, Stoel Rives integrated each firm’s practice areas, ranging from natural resources and environmental law to land use and litigation, thus strengthening its own multifaceted portfolio.
“Generally, all of those moves were intended to enhance our service capability for our clients, build our talent base and expand our strategic reach into market sectors that we had experience or interest in,” Van Brocklin says.
Seattle also was the first expansion target for Miller Nash, a Portland-based firm with additional offices in Bend, Prineville and Vancouver. Seattle was a natural choice because a large client had acquired a business entity in the area and Miller Nash already had a relationship with an attorney established there. They formed a partnership and Miller Nash began its Seattle operations in 1999, says managing partner Don Burns.
The firm moved into Vancouver the following year by partnering with a handful of attorneys who already were practicing there. In 2007, Miller Nash opened its Central Oregon offices with people who came from other firms with shared specialties, Burns says, noting the growth did not occur through firm mergers in terms of assuming assets and liabilities.
Since several of Miller Nash’s clients are spread throughout the Pacific Northwest, it’s a plus to have multiple offices to serve existing clients and attract new ones. In addition, it helps from a recruiting standpoint because employees can move from one city to another, and experience a small-firm feel with big-firm perks.
“I also think practice areas can be cyclical, and spreading yourself geographically smoothes some of that out,” Burns says.
Steve Janik, who launched his firm in Portland during the ’80s, had a unique strategy in mind when he established an office in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago. Partner Jim Beall already was an established lobbyist there when he agreed to head Ball Janik’s D.C. office.
“We saw D.C. as an opportunity to solve our clients’ problems in a different way, mainly beyond negotiation or litigation,” says Janik. “If you have the possibility to affect administrative rules or federal legislation, that’s another useful tool.”
Janik opened an office in Bend a decade ago after being asked to handle several land-use and real estate matters there. Most recently he opened an office in Seattle, a strategy initiated in 2009 to position Ball Janik as a regional firm with a focus on federal government contracting. Ball Janik now has about 130 lawyers and government relations professionals working in its four offices.
Along with eliminating the need for attorneys to commute to serve the firm’s clients, the benefits of having multiple offices include being able to develop better relationships with clients, Janik says.
“It also allows you to become part of the community where you work,” he explains.
Community involvement has been an essential piece of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt’s expansion strategy as well. Based in Portland, the firm opened an office in Seattle in 1980 to better serve its maritime clients. Schwabe opened the additional office because its leaders recognized that Seattle has its own personality, and an office there would help overcome the hurdles of trying to practice from a remote location, says managing partner Mark Long.
Since then, Schwabe has opened offices in Vancouver, Bend and Salem and now has 175 attorneys practicing in its various locations. Once each office was established, Schwabe’s attorneys quickly joined civic organizations and volunteer activities within their respective communities.
“For the employees it’s significant and for the firm it’s very impactful. It makes us a real member of those communities that you can only get by being there,” Long says.
And, for Schwabe, some expansions are strictly strategic while others are driven by employee dynamics. Long says the Bend office came about when a member of Schwabe’s environmental law group in Portland asked to practice there because his wife had been offered a job in Prineville.
Harrang Long Gary Rudnick partner Sharon Rudnick joined the firm in 1983 when it only had one office. Founded in 1957 in Eugene, the partners began strategizing how to grow it into a regional practice.
“We had always done legislation-related litigation and worked with elected officials and appellate law, so our first decision was that we needed a presence in the state capital,” she says. The firm opened its Salem office in 1990 and employs three lawyers there.
By the late ’90s, the firm already had a significant amount of work in Portland and wanted to open an office there. It merged with attorney Frank Moscato in 2000 and has grown from three lawyers to 16 over the last decade.
With another 13 attorneys practicing in Eugene, Harrang Long’s decision to open multiple offices greatly expanded its ability to serve clients up and down the West Coast and helped broaden the scope of work it is able to do, Rudnick says.
BIGGER AND BETTER, WITH A FEW BUMPS ALONG THE WAY
While opening offices in multiple cities has myriad benefits, there are a few drawbacks. The additional overhead is among the most common negative cited by firms with multiple locations. Other aspects of day-to-day management can be difficult as well, says Beth Skillern, Bullivant Houser Bailey’s president.
Founded in 1938, Bullivant has 130 attorneys practicing in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Sacramento, San Francisco and Las Vegas. It also has formed alliances with several of China’s largest law firms in order to better serve its clients there.
“Distances, no matter how much they have been shortened by technology, are real,” Skillern says. “Managing activities, keeping service levels and business development efforts consistent and staying tuned to the needs of lawyers and staff miles apart are always a challenge.”
Rudnick and Long say one of their foremost concerns is ensuring none of their offices feels separated or operates as a satellite.
“That requires constant attention to make sure everyone is included and no one feels left out,” Long says.
He adds that economic lows are another issue because some offices can be impacted by downturns more significantly than others. Schwabe’s Bend office has been hit hard by the recession, but the firm has met that challenge by refocusing on where current opportunities exist. For example, commercial and residential development has stagnated but land use issues are fairly constant.
Van Brocklin and Burns agree that the process of integrating new associates, and sometimes entire firms, into their firms presents some unknowns, particularly when it comes to fitting in with the parent company’s culture.
“You may have different geographic alignments, and that’s okay as long you know what those differences are,” Burns says. “The effort to maintain a certain culture can also test that culture and result in positive changes that broaden a firm’s horizons.”
COHESION, CONSISTENCE AND CONNECTIVITY
Each firm with multiple offices strives to maintain a consistent corporate culture, ensure its staff members feel connected and provide seamless service to clients. The ways they achieve those objectives vary slightly, but most partners agree it’s essential to start with the recruiting process.
“First, you have to be certain that lawyers and staff have been recruited and trained with a common expectation of what the firm delivers to its clients,” Bullivant’s Skillern says.
Van Brocklin says Stoel Rives intentionally questions potential new employees about the firm’s corporate culture to gauge their understanding of it during the recruiting process. Culture also plays a prominent role as new lawyers and staff members go through the firm’s initial orientation and ongoing integration into the firm.
“We understand how important compatibility is among co-workers, and I think we work pretty hard on the entry end of things to ensure we are hiring people who are in the general range of our culture,” Van Brocklin says.
In terms of keeping employees connected, Stoel Rives in 2002 adopted a strategic plan that reorganized the firm into practice groups rather than the traditional office-oriented structure.
“By doing it that way you begin to be able to get more integration between the offices, and individual lawyers start to think about the offices as one firm. That reduces segmentation and separation, which allows you to fully leverage and take advantage of all the resources within the firm,” Van Brocklin says.
Long says Schwabe has had success with a similar structure, which links employees from five offices because they share practice groups. Rudnick says her firm’s lawyers regularly travel to other offices to work on cases together, which helps create cohesion.
Each of the partners agrees that technology has been an invaluable tool in bringing people together and ensuring seamless service for clients. Darryl Hair, chief operating officer at Stoel Rives, says the firm’s robust extranet allows attorneys and clients to view documents and discuss them via videoconference, which is particularly effective on more complex projects.
“To me that’s a way to bridge the gap between telephone calls and actually being there because you still get the face-to-face experience,” he says. “It’s basically a virtual office that brings together people in three or four locations, maybe three or four different time zones, and it’s essentially the same thing as sitting together in a conference room.”
Technology has been a boon to encouraging transparency when it comes to which projects attorneys are working on at Miller Nash, allowing the firm to be more flexible, Burns says.
“If we have one office that isn’t as busy and one that is, we can shift work around to the office that isn’t as busy,” he says.
Civic and social gatherings present another opportunity to create cohesion among multiple offices. Rudnick says her employees participate in public service events such as United Way’s Day of Caring, and her firm sponsors Race for the Cure teams.
Along with community service activities, Schwabe uses its annual retreat as a significant means of bringing employees together.
“We go to some lengths at those retreats to make sure lawyers from the same office don’t sit at the same table together,” Long says, adding the effort to foster such interoffice mingling takes some work, but it’s worth it. “It helps build relationships and eliminates the obstacle that when someone isn’t down the hall they are out of mind.”
Van Brocklin says that the night before Stoel Rives’ annual retreat, its attorneys are divided into eight or 10 small groups that dine in different restaurants. Each group consists of attorneys from different offices and practice groups so that people who don’t work together get a chance to know each other. The retreat itself includes several opportunities to socialize, including fishing and other outdoor recreation.
Burns says Miller Nash also hosts an annual retreat for attorneys and managers, its paralegals get together for annual social events, and most of its offices hold summer picnics. In addition, daily e-mails and a quarterly e-newsletter keep staff up on what is happening within the firm.
RECESSION TAKES ITS TOLL, BUT PRESENTS SOME SILVER LININGS
Miller Nash actually cancelled its employee retreat in 2007 and 2008 because of the recession, opting to preserve its financial resources until the economic outlook brightened again.
Other firms have used the recession as an opportunity to re-evaluate expenses such as travel costs. A greater use of technology not only has helped Bullivant reduce its travel costs, but it also helped the firm meet its sustainability goals because it reduces the energy use required for physical trips, Skillern says.
Hair says Stoel Rives has boosted its Web presence and its use of videoconferencing, cutting its travel expenses in half compared to a few years ago. The firm spends more on travel related to marketing and business development, but less on project work than in the past.
While travel is still necessary on some occasions, the firm is more conscious in weighing the need for a trip versus communication via phone or videoconferencing. In the end, it comes down to what is most efficient and effective for clients, Van Brocklin says.
Long agrees, noting that while technology is a great means of reducing expenses and improving efficiency, it can’t always replace the tried and true practice of face-to-face communication.
“As awesome as that technology is, there’s an impersonal
quality to it and it’s no substitute for being there in person,”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2011 Melody Finnemore