Jeff Ranen is not stopping at raiding his former law firm for about 140 attorneys.
Ranen expects his new firm, Barber Ranen, to grow to as many as 300 lawyers in the next three years, he said in an interview. That means quickly expanding beyond the slew of California labor and employment lawyers who left from Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith with Ranen and John Barber earlier this month.
Their new firm plans within a year to start launching offices in New York, Chicago, Miami, and Dallas, Ranen said. It’s also looking to add corporate, intellectual property, and commercial litigation lawyers.
“We do not want to be another Littler Mendelson or Jackson Lewis,” said Ranen, referring to a pair of large firms that focus on employment defense. “Our plan is to in less than 12 months be a full-practice law firm.”
There’s little recent precedent for a Big Law offshoot growing into a behemoth in such a short period of time as Ranen envisions. Attorneys commonly exit large firms in groups to spin off boutiques focusing on narrow practice areas.
The trick for Barber Ranen will be getting recruits to take take the plunge, said Michelle Fivel, a legal recruiter.
“They don’t have a name brand yet and they’re going to have to educate people in the market,” Fivel, a partner at Hatch Henderson Fivel, said. “Some may be attracted to that green field, but that could be a very high-risk proposition.”
“Lawyers tend to be very risk averse,” Fivel said.
Ranen and Barber, Los Angeles-based leaders of Lewis Brisbois’ labor and employment group, led a group of eight partners who initially told firm leadership in late April that they were leaving.
Then, they started inviting other Lewis Brisbois to exit with them.
Nearly 140 lawyers, primarily based in California, are now set to join the new firm, Ranen said.
He and Barber kicked around the idea of starting their own firm for years before making the move, they said in interviews.
“The tipping point was an acute level of dissatisfaction that my team had with the status quo,” on top of “messaging from management,” said Ranen.
“We reached a point in our careers where we thought we could do it better.”
He declined to elaborate on the reasons for the split.
Lewis Brisbois has grown to more than 1,600 US lawyers over more than four decades. The firm brought in over $700 million in gross revenue last year, with equity partner profits topping $1 million.
The rush of exits prompted the firm’s co-founder and longtime chair, Bob Lewis, in early May to step down as the firm disbanded its executive committee. The firm also expanded its management committee, which Lewis remains on, from nine to 13 members.
Lewis Brisbois elected a new managing partner in New York-based Gregory Katz. The firm has declined to make Katz available for an interview since his promotion.
Meet the New Firm
Ranen said there will be some stark differences between his new firm and his former employer.
He’s promising more flexible fee structures for clients, as well as higher salaries and better benefits for lawyers, on top of an easier path to equity partnership.
The firm hired Timothy Graves, who had retired in 2020 after serving as Lewis Brisbois’ managing partner, to be its chief executive officer. Robert Kamins, a former chief operating officer at Lewis Brisbois who now serves as a legal business consultant, is also serving as an outside COO for Barber Ranen.
“I probably wouldn’t do it with anybody else,” said Graves.
They’re embarking on the endeavor amid economic headwinds that have slowed demand for legal services. Attorneys billed at an annual pace of 1,600 hours in the first quarter of 2023, the lowest figure in at least 15 years, according to a Wells Fargo & Co. survey of the 66 largest firms.
Labor and employment work—Barber Ranen’s chief focus initially—has remained brisk even as corporate transactions hit the skids. That’s particularly the case in California, where progressive employment laws and layoffs across the tech industry have kept workplace lawyers busy, Ranen said.
Ranen and Barber said nearly all of their personal clients, which include insurance carriers, hospitality, manufacturing and retail firms, are coming with them. Their clients over the years have included Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., food delivery company Home Chef, defense contractor Raytheon Technologies Corporation, and National Retail Transportation Inc., according to court records.
Lewis Brisbois’ national clients are remaining with the firm, said Elior Shilor, its new employment group leader. Shior did not name specific clients, but the firm has been a longtime adviser to corporate giants such as Home Depot and the Ford Motor Co.
“All of our national clients have advised, even with the departure, they are committed to working with Lewis Brisbois, based on it having a national footprint,” Shiloh said.
Despite the expansion plans, Graves cautioned that Barber Ranen should focus on “smart, controlled growth.”
Ranen is touting what he says will be a more lean operation than at his previous firm. The cost savings will be passed to clients and boost salaries for lawyers, he said. He noted the salaries, while higher than average pay at Lewis Brisbois, will be below the top-of-market rates seen at some elite firms.
“Our new firm is going to have administrative infrastructure that is intentionally leaner than our predecessor,” Ranen said. “If we keep our attrition rate low, our firm is going to be very successful.”
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