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Entrepreneurial, collegial, connected

When Saul Ewing LLP’s downtown Pittsburgh office co-managing partners Charlie Kelly and David Berk held a mini-retreat in March, instead of immediately getting down to business, staring at numbers and metrics, the session opened with an ice breaker.

“We spent the first 90 minutes with question after question about what people like by way of movies, or if you could speak to anyone living or dead, who would it be?” Kelly said. “Then we had to match the response with the person who gave it. People said John F. Kennedy and Saint Paul. But this effort to get to know one another at that level just makes Saul Ewing a pleasant place. You feel you have a bigger, broader picture of who your peers are than, ‘here’s my practice.’”

It’s a strategy Berk and Kelly have used since Saul Ewing first entered Pittsburgh in 2012. Veteran lawyers make it possible for large, full-service firms to enter the region. Their connections pave the way to building business, and their knowledge of the local legal community helps them bring other lawyers on board and reinforce a sense of culture in relatively short order among those who hail from different firms. In turn, lawyers who might not have stood much of a chance of leading their prior firm get a turn at the top.

In Pittsburgh, the trend of national full-service firms opening their own offices rather than acquiring already established firms began in 1989 when then-Cleveland-based Jones Day opened its office downtown. Several more firms came from Philadelphia in the mid-1990s and another burst around 2000.

More recently, Philadelphia-based Saul Ewing and San Francisco-based Gordon & Rees LLP set up shop downtown in 2012, and Philadelphia-based Blank Rome LLP arrived in early 2015.

Each said the move was client-driven and that finding the right leadership was critical.

“Without question, the relative success of our national offices is largely a function of the quality of their leadership,” said Dion Cominos, firmwide managing partner at Gordon & Rees. “When selecting an office managing partner, the qualities we look for include a highly entrepreneurial spirit, a tremendously positive and collegial attitude, great lawyering skills, strong local connections and a strong sense of how what gets done on the practice side translates to the bottom line.”

Lori Carpenter, president of downtown-based recruitment firm Carpenter Legal Search Inc., said she knows of some firms — though she wouldn’t identify them — that have eyed the Pittsburgh market for several years but haven’t established an office because they haven’t found a practice group that works well with them or is the right cultural fit.

“The difficulty has become the profitability of a new office,” Carpenter said. “It’s a huge time and revenue commitment, and while I think it would be in a firm’s best interest to focus on the leadership skills of someone they’re looking to run the office, some have the expectation that a great rainmaker has great leadership and interpersonal skills and those will translate into management of an office. That isn’t always the case.”

In order to open a new office here, firms need to hire lawyers who’ll generate between $3 million and $10 million in revenue annually. So even if they already have clients here, that means hiring strong producers to bring in additional business. It’s not easy.

“The Pittsburgh market is very different,” Carpenter said. “It’s not Philly, New York or D.C. It’s close-knit, and there are only so many high-producing partners looking to make a move at any given time.”

And putting a a lawyer with a big book of business in a leadership role that includes administrative duties makes a short list even smaller.

“It is very difficult to manage full-time and have a practice,” Carpenter said.

Yet, Saul Ewing, Gordon & Rees and Blank Rome all have taken on the challenge of building a Pittsburgh practice from scratch. Here’s a look at their strategies for doing so.

Read More: Entrepreneurial, collegial, connected - by Patty Tascarella, Pittsburgh Business Times

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