Should You Join a "Branch" Office?

Most firms will tell you that they're holistic -- a cohesive firm without a main headquarters and attendant "branch" offices. But reality usually belies those self-definitions. Most large firms are, for all intents and purposes, based in one city with branch offices in other locations. The question for the job-seeker is: should you join a branch office of a large firm?

There can be some disadvantages to working at branch offices of major law firms. In some cases, lawyers in the branches are not in the center of the action. The firm's sexiest clients may really just be clients of the main office. And sometimes branch offices are not as busy as the firm's headquarters. That, combined with the fact that the firm's most influential partners may be in the home office, could mean a lack of prestige and power for lawyers in smaller offices.

From a financial perspective, some large firm partnerships have a "profit-center" structure, in which the offices that earn the most profit (usually the main office) have most, if not all, decision-making power. Partners in the main office also usually earn more. During economic slumps, branch offices are often the first to make cuts in resources and personnel.

However, depending on your career goals, the advantages of working in a branch office can far outweigh those downsides.

The main advantage of working in a large firm's branch office is getting big-firm resources with a small-firm feel. And in these days of Internet connectivity, location is far less important than it was even five years ago. Because most firms cross-staff their cases for seamless, borderless representation, you'll likely still be staffed on high-profile, interesting matters no matter where you're based.

New York-based Davis Polk & Wardwell, for example, opened a Menlo Park office in 1999 and that office is now home to 18 attorneys. Like their New York brethren, Davis Polk's Silicon Valley lawyers are involved in the full range of corporate matters including IPOs, debt financings, mergers and joint ventures. Indeed, according to the firm, that office handled the largest merger in the history of Silicon Valley -- the $21 billion acquisition of Network Solutions by VeriSign. The firm's Menlo Park office also represented when it was acquired for $1.2 billion by Webvan.

At Weil Gotshal & Manges, another New York-based firm, the 10-year-old Menlo Park office is consistently one of the most profitable for the firm, according to the managing partner there. Focused exclusively on intellectual property, Weil's 30-attorney Silicon Valley office represents blue-chip clients like Applied Materials, General Electric and Cisco Systems.

Down South, San Francisco-based Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe boasts more than 60 lawyers in its Los Angeles branch office. The lawyers there handle corporate work, intellectual property, litigation and public finance. Similarly, New York-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom's office in Los Angeles has, according to California Law Business, "a reputation among the local legal community as a formidable, indigenous law firm."

And these days, law firm leaders hail from all corners of the firms' universe. For example, San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster had a Denver-based partner as its firm-wide chairman until recently. And currently, Morrison's two firm-wide managing partners herald from the Walnut Creek and Washington, D.C., offices.

At San Francisco-based Brobeck Phleger & Harrison, the 2001 partnership class included eight lawyers from San Francisco -- but also seven from Palo Alto, three from Irvine, three from New York, two from Austin and one from Boulder. Similarly, Los Angeles powerhouse Latham & Watkins lured longtime Silicon Valley giant Alan Mendelson to its burgeoning Menlo Park office.

The upshot? There are pluses and minuses to working in a law firm's "branch" office. But these days, the downsides are -- as they say in the legal biz -- de minimus.


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