The business case for practicing law in paradise

(Reuters) - Practically every big law firm can brag about having offices in cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

But what about locales off the beaten track, especially glamorous ones like the Hamptons, Aspen or St. Thomas?

As lawyers hesitantly return to the office following the COVID-19 pandemic, a perennial law firm real estate question is getting a new twist: Where does it make most sense for large firms to retain a physical presence domestically?

The pandemic proved lawyers can work from just about anywhere effectively and efficiently. But consultants tell me that doesn’t mean firms looking to reduce overhead should rush to shutter their far-flung outposts.

If anything, the opposite.

“I find that firms are more flexible on small offices these days with the focus really on the talent,” said Lisa Smith, a principal at Fairfax Associates.

Consider Greenberg Traurig.

Greenberg Traurig’s office in Bridgehampton, New York. Photo credit James Poster.

In early 2022, the 2,500-lawyer firm opened two new offices on Long Island, New York — one in Bridgehampton, famous as a playground for the posh and powerful, and one in Garden City (OK, not exactly paradise).

Executive chairman Richard Rosenbaum told me the new outposts have aided the firm in attracting and retaining lawyers “who no longer want to commute” into Manhattan.

Moreover, the Bridgehampton office offers proximity to a client base of corporate principals, investment bankers and such who “because of the pandemic are increasingly spending a lot of time in the Hamptons,” he said. "So-called small markets can be very valuable to clients and ultimately valuable to (legal) talent and the firm."

As a marketing bonus, the new office is in the heart of Bridgehampton on Montauk Highway and features a prominent Greenberg Traurig sign. “We’ve gotten emails from literally all over the world from people who saw the sign asking ‘What, are you guys everywhere?’” Rosenbaum said.

(So ... a bit like a high-class version of plaintiffs' lawyers freeway billboards?)

Long Island co-managing shareholder Brian Doyle said the office is also a hit with colleagues visiting the Hamptons. Firm lawyers from Los Angeles, Atlanta, Denver, Boston and Tel Aviv, as well as those who normally work in Manhattan, have all made use of the space, which can accommodate more than 20 lawyers, he said.

The Garden City office, while lacking in jet-setters, offers proximity to local courts and businesses, plus an easier commute for Long Islanders than schlepping to Manhattan.

Legal consultant R. Bruce McLean, a partner at the Zeughauser Group, called Greenberg’s move “an interesting tactic” to encourage lawyers to return to the office, but added, “A question is, can you be everywhere your lawyers want to live?”

Maybe not everywhere, but several other big firms also offer lawyers a chance to practice high-end law while living in prime vacation spots.

For example, 800-lawyer Duane Morris has a small office in Truckee, California, a gold rush-era ski town near Lake Tahoe, prompted by specific client needs.

With multiple ski areas including Palisades Tahoe (formerly known as Squaw Valley) and Alpine Meadows as clients, Duane Morris lawyers in the event of a catastrophic or fatal injury — think snowboarder versus snowcat — can “get out to the resort at a moment’s notice,” partner John Fagan told me. That allows them to assist with the investigation and talk to resort employees under the umbrella of attorney-client privilege.

Fagan, who got his start as an associate working on a massive wrongful death suit against Alpine Meadows after an avalanche there killed seven people in 1982, said clients balked at paying lawyers to drive four hours from San Francisco to Tahoe for depositions.

In response, Fagan’s predecessor firm Hancock Rothert & Bunshoft, which merged with Duane Morris in 2005, opened the Tahoe office 35 years ago.

“I gladly volunteered” to work there, said Fagan, an avid skier and one of two lawyers plus a paralegal based in the office near the eastern edge of Truckee.

Holland & Hart’s Aspen office goes back even further. It was the Denver-founded firm’s first regional outpost, launched in 1965 when Aspen’s development was in its heyday.

While ski industry clients were the initial driving force, work now includes land use, real estate development, environmental and natural resources and private client services, both locally and as part of firm-wide teams.

Partner Mark Hamilton is one of eight lawyers and four staff who work from Aspen, where the firm for decades has owned its office building on East Main Street.

When Hamilton tells lawyers outside 400-lawyer Holland & Hart where he’s based, he said their reaction is often the same: “Gosh, how’d you figure that out?”

It’s not all champagne powder though. “The cost of living in Aspen makes it not a simple calculus, even for a successful lawyer,” he said. “It’s not for everyone.”

As a bonus, the 7,000-person town offers ample opportunities to rub shoulders with potential clients. Like the Hamptons, a “disproportionate number” of the rich and powerful “come through Aspen all the time,” Hamilton noted. “It’s a meeting place for people from all over.”

For lawyers who prefer sun to snow, it’s hard to beat Ogletree Deakins’ office in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands (a territory of the United States since 1917).

Partner Charles Engeman told me he “packed up and moved to the Virgin Islands” 30 years ago after quitting his job as an associate at Goodwin Procter in Boston.

He practiced with a local firm for 10 years, then joined 875-lawyer Ogletree to open a five-lawyer office in St. Thomas, where he said it remains the only Am Law 200 firm based on revenue with a local presence. Office lawyers focus on defending employers, especially those in the tourism industry, in labor and employment matters.

Overlooking the brilliant turquoise waters of Long Bay, the office also makes a nice recruiting hook, Engeman added, with law students often asking “Oh, how do I get to that office?”

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Thomson Reuters

Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at [email protected]