Firm Commitment - While other litigation boutiques have expanded, merged with larger firms or simply gone belly up, Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg has held fast to the belief that bigger doesn't always mean better

David Houston

Daily Journal Extra

November 8, 2004

Terry W. Bird and Vincent. J. Marella have quaint notions. They think they can keep their litigation boutique from expanding beyond 25 lawyers, and they think they can resist lucrative offers from national law firms that would devour their tiny firm eagerly like another delicious canapØ.

For a quarter-century, Bird and Marella have held fast to these old-fashioned ideas. And lest anyone is tempted to think otherwise, this year, in time for their silver anniversary, they added three more partners to the firm's name: Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg.

Take that, all you law firms that paid public relations gurus a fortune to whittle your name down to a catchy one or two words.

"I think it's fair to say that this is a group of independent people who like who we are and like the kind of life we live professionally," Bird says.

He is sitting in a conference room in the firm's million-dollar-a-year Century City offices, a 21,000-square-foot penthouse suite formerly occupied by the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Marella sits across the table. The pair have been friends since they worked together in the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office in the 1970s, and they know each other so well they frequently finish each other's thoughts.

"The profile of the practice has not changed from the very beginning," Marella says. "We do litigation only; we do complex commercial litigation [and] white-collar criminal defense."

That strategy has paid off.

Chambers USA this year named four of the firm's partners - Bird, Marella, Gary S. Lincenberg and Ronald J. Nessim - among California's top white-collar criminal defense lawyers.

Daily Journal Extra this year named Dorothy Wolpert one of the top 50 women litigators in the state.

Bird is a member of the committee that picks federal court judges in Los Angeles, and Marella was on the short list for the U.S. attorney last time around.

One of the few top litigation boutiques still standing in Los Angeles, Bird Marella has 13 partners, seven associates and six paralegals. Yet it handles some of the most important litigation in the western United States.

"We're not enormous in size, but we're very deep," Marella says.

Jones Day partner Brian J. O'Neill knows something about hotshot litigation boutiques. Until last year when it closed its doors, O'Neill's Santa Monica-based O'Neill, Lysaght & Sun was considered Bird Marella's chief Southern California rival.

"The lawyers there [at Bird Marella] from top to bottom are every bit as good as the lawyers at any of the big firms in town," O'Neill says.

"Not only are they good, they are known for being good, and that's almost as important as being good," O'Neill says. "A reputation like theirs attracts clients, and it gets them respect from the courts."

Jonathan D. Schiller of Boies, Schiller & Flexner in Washington, D.C., has known Bird and Marella for 25 years and often teams with them on cases.

Schiller called Bird "one of the great lawyers in the country" and said the Bird Marella firm is stocked with similar legal talent.

"They're terrific lawyers, they have a great deal of experience, they have outstanding trial skills and they use their resources intelligently," he said. "That's what makes them able to do the kinds of cases that they do."

Among other headline-snagging cases, the firm's lawyers are representing the following: • Jean-Claude Seys, the chief executive officer of a consortium of insurance companies led by Credit Lyonnais that illegally purchased California's Executive Life Insurance Co. Marella worked a deal under which Seys pleaded guilty in January to aiding and abetting false statements to the U.S. government, paid a $250,000 fine and was put on three years' probation. • Qwest Communications Chief Financial Officer Robin Szeliga, who is under federal investigation in Denver as part of a broad alleged corporate corruption scandal and is being represented by Bird and Marella. • Homestore.com Chief Financial Officer Joseph Shew, for whom Bird arranged a guilty plea in Los Angeles to federal charges of cooking the company's books in return for his cooperation with prosecutors' investigation into other company officials.

Shew was the first to plead guilty in the Homestore cases and faces up to five years in prison. Because of his cooperation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Fuchs says the government likely will recommended a significantly reduced sentence. Eight other Homestore officials pleaded guilty as a result of Shew's cooperation.

"Terry understood what our needs are, and he understands how the process works," Fuchs says. "As a result of that, he was able to minimize the exposure his client faces, and the government was able to crack the case wide open as a result of [Shew's] cooperation."

The Bird Marella firm also has developed a significant practice representing other firms and lawyers in legal disputes. That portion of the practice began with former partner U.S. District Judge Howard A. Matz.

Matz joined the firm in 1983 and stayed until 1998, when President Clinton named him to the federal bench.

Matz's partners have continued the practice, working on some of the biggest malpractice claims. For example, in 2003, Dorothy Wolpert and Joel E. Boxer successfully defended Seattle-based Davis Wright Tremaine against a malpractice lawsuit and won an order for the client to settle its $2 million in unpaid legal fees.

Davis Wright represented a faction of a wealthy real estate family who got into a squabble after the patriarch died and later accused the law firm of causing them to lose part of their inheritance. Gold v. Davis Wright Tremaine, BC226720, BC239720 (L.A. Super. Ct. 2003).

While Bird Marella benefited from Matz's foresight about the current trend of suing law firms and lawyers, the firm also has felt the pain of being on the receiving end.

Last week, the firm agreed to a confidential settlement with lawyer John J. Reiner, who was convicted of trying to extort $300,000 from Erin Brockovich and her boss, lawyer Edward Masry.

Reiner, who accused Bird Marella of overbilling him, declined to discuss the case. He complained that Bird Marella billed him $360,000 in seven months before taking the case to trial, though he doesn't specify how much of that he believes was excessive.

Bird Marella lawyers also declined to discuss the case. Marella says that the trend of suing lawyers has forced law firms to be more rigid in their management practices.

"Unfortunately, in this day and age, it's gotten to the point where eventually, if you're practicing law, you'll get sued," Marella says. "We're careful about what we do, we have redundant systems for checking our conflicts and that's something we advise our law firm clients to do, as well."

The firm is small enough that only one or two lawyers appear in court on any given case, resulting in significant trial time for each lawyer. That's made the firm one of the most desired nests in Los Angeles for federal prosecutors and federal judicial clerks looking for a place to land.

"They provide a high level of representation and always with a great degree of integrity. Because of that, they're highly regarded by the judges they appear in front of," U.S. District Judge Wm. Matthew Byrne, the former chief judge of the federal court in Los Angeles, says.

The firm's lawyers also perform hundreds of hours of pro bono work for a variety of groups and causes.

In the past two years, the firm averaged 1,300 hours in pro bono work, not including Bird's work on the board of People Assisting the Homeless; Wolpert's work on the board of the Inner City Law Center, which helps tenants in slum housing; and partner Mark T. Drooks' work with Bet Tzedek, the Jewish-rooted indigent legal services group of which Drooks will become president next year.

"Their pro bono is totally disproportionate to the size of that firm," says Matz, who also served as president of Bet Tzedek while he was a Bird Marella partner.

In 2002, on behalf of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, partner John M. McCoy represented garment workers who sued an El Monte sweatshop to recover back wages. They settled the case out of court for $4 million. Castro v. Fashion 21 Inc., 02-55629 (9th Cir. 2002).

In one of the more unusual pro bono efforts, Bird represented a group of animal rights activists who sued to force the Los Angeles Zoo to bring back from the Knoxville, Tenn., Zoo a 43-year-old African elephant named Ruby, who was separated from her longtime girlfriend, an Asian elephant named Gita.

After Bird showed up in front of Superior Court Judge George H. Wu in July to argue Ruby's case, Mayor James K. Hahn quickly ordered the zoo to get the elephant back to Los Angeles. Doyle v. Maruska, BC259692 (L.A. Super. Ct. 2003).

In October, the State Bar honored the Bird Marella firm with its Presidents Pro Bono Service Award for medium-size law firms.

"Their commitment to pro bono is such that they've virtually built a practice out of defending society's most-vulnerable workers," says Julie A. Su, Asian Pacific American Legal Center legal director, which also recently honored the firm for its work.

Wolpert, who with Boxer fled the crumbling Beverly Hills entertainment firm Kaplan, Livingston, Goodwin, Berkowitz & Selvin in 1981 to form Bird Marella's founding core, says the firm's commitment to the practice of law and to the community has sustained it for 25 years.

"This is a profession. It's not a business," she says. "There are some litigators in our community who've never tried a case. We're trial lawyers. That's the fundamental difference about who we are. And we feel very strongly about that."

It's been that way from the very beginning.

In 1977, Vince Marella called his former colleague Terry Bird, who had left the U.S. attorney's office a year earlier to work as a special investigator of cost overruns on the Trans Alaska pipeline.

At the time, Bird and his colleagues, including Schiller, were preparing their final report that led to the state of Alaska's recovering billions of dollars from the oil companies that built the pipeline.

"What are you doing for the rest of your life?" Marella asked.

He had the notion of opening a private practice, and his boss at the time, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson, suggested that he pair with Bird.

The pair knew each other from a few years back when both worked in the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's elite fraud and special-prosecutions section.

Today, the office has 265 lawyers and a half-dozen special-prosecutions sections. But when Marella met Bird, there were 40 lawyers and one special-prosecutions unit.

Many top litigators in Los Angeles today were assigned to that section in the 1970s; Matz; Wilson and Jack Walter, all federal judges now, were among them. As they all will attest, those were the golden days.

To hear them tell it, lawyers in the office were the best and had the biggest, most-interesting, most-complex cases. The fraternity among the men in the unit - and they were all men - was unparalleled.

"It was a very collegial atmosphere," recalls Wilson, who headed the fraud and special-prosecutions section. "We'd work late at night and go out to dinner at the cafeteria in the police building down the street. Then we'd go back to the office and work some more.

"Friday nights, we'd go with Rob Bonner [then the U.S. attorney and now the head of the U.S. Customs Service] to Chinatown and have a meal, have some fun and talk about each other's cases.

"We were all young guys then, and there was a kind of closeness that comes with a relatively small group of people."

No one figures into that legend more than Bird and Marella.

The men grew up on opposite coasts, Bird in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier and Marella in South Philadelphia.

But they shared similar middle-class backgrounds. Bird's father was an accountant, and Marella's father ran a wholesale produce business.

Both had strong mothers: Bird's ran a marketing firm that employed 30 women, and Marella's was active in the Philadelphia school system.

Bird, now 58, played football at Stanford under legendary coach Bill Walsh.

After graduating from UCLA law school, Bird clerked for two years on the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in 1972.

Marella, also 58, graduated from Temple University and Temple School of Law. He became an assistant U.S. attorney the same year as Bird.

And today, when either of them talks about "the office" they aren't referring to their current Century City digs; they're talking instead about the U.S. attorney's office. And not just generally, but in the 1970s.

"That's because that's where our roots are," Bird says.

"The truth of the matter is, at least from my perspective, we got so spoiled because we had such a good time, and we worked together so nicely," Marella says.

And while they weren't joined at the hip while there, they had trust and confidence in each other's abilities.

So it wasn't surprising that, when Marella placed a call, it was to Bird, who was intrigued and promised to stop in Los Angeles the next time he headed to Alaska.

But he warned Marella that there was one little issue: a woman named Fran.

For as long as Bird had known Marella, his wife, Fran Marella, had said she had no intention of staying in Los Angeles. She wanted to return to her native Philadelphia.

As far as she was concerned, her husband's five years at the U.S. attorney's office was quite enough time spent in Los Angeles.

"I cried all the time after we moved here," Fran Marella says now.

"I missed my friends, I missed my family. There were no Italians in my neighborhood," she said recently, as she made biscotti.

Bird recalls telling his friend, "Vince, look, I've got to know that Fran is committed to [staying in Los Angeles], too."

And, Vince Marella didn't know the answer. A few nights later, Vince Marella and Bird huddled in the Marellas' Westwood apartment and hammered out the framework of the firm.

Fran Marella listened on the other side of the kitchen door.

"We didn't know if it was going to be white smoke or black smoke," Bird jokes.

"So Terry and I, being the two very, very tough guys that we are, we both held each other's hand and went to talk to my wife," Vince Marella says.

Fran Marella recalls, "Both of them walked into the kitchen and just looked at me and said, 'It's up to you.'"

Thirty years later, after retiring from what turned out to be a rewarding career as a elementary public-school teacher in Hollywood, Fran Marella says she knew in her heart that day that staying in Los Angeles was the right decision.

Her mother back in Philadelphia encouraged her to stay in Los Angeles and build her own career.

"I was an only child, and I did miss my life back in Philadelphia, but you can never go home again," she says.

Bird and Marella borrowed $50,000 from a local banker and opened their first office in Beverly Hills. They haven't borrowed a dime since.

Bird brought a piece of the Alaska case to the practice, and lawyers around town who knew the duo from their days in the U.S. attorney's office began sending them business.

"We got along with people in the legal community, and I guess they respected us and our work, and they began referring us cases," Marella says.

They practiced together for four years before Boxer, Wolpert and others joined them to found the firm as it is now. During that time, they took on one associate, Stephen J. Czuleger, now a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles.

Looking back, it is clear they set up their own, more diverse version of the tight-knit group from the 1970s U.S. attorney's office.

The core group of four - Bird, Boxer, Marella and Wolpert - have been to together for 25 years, and Matz was with them for 15 years before joining the bench.

Today, the firm has one female partner and several female associates. The firm also has Chinese and Korean partners and an Israeli associate. Another associate, Benjamin N. Gluck, is a rabbi.

"You stop and think about it, we're a pretty diverse group for such a small firm," Marella says. "And it's an interesting group."

"We're involved in [our attorneys'] communities as a result of them being involved in our little community here," Marella says.

Along the way, the firm has managed to avoid the pitfalls that ensnared so many others.

"The landscape is littered with firms that grew to handle a big case because, financially, it's just so lucrative," Marella says, "and they grew outside of their culture, or not respecting their culture, and ultimately paid a terrible price."

On a Friday afternoon in the spring of 1981, Joel Boxer and Dorothy Wolpert left their offices at Kaplan, Livingston, Goodwin, Berkowitz & Selvin and took a walk up Roxbury Drive.

That stroll through Beverly Hills set the stage for Bird Marella's second chapter - and solidified its foundation of lawyers who did not want to work at larger firms.

Kaplan Livingston practiced entertainment law and, with 70 lawyers, was one of Los Angeles' biggest firms, boasting some of its best-known legal talent.

"Kaplan was one of the best groups of lawyers ever assembled in Los Angeles," says George R. Hedges, who worked in Kaplan's litigation department and is a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges.

Foreshadowing the troubles that befell many law firms around the nation in the '80s and '90s, Kaplan Livingston partners had begun to squabble over money and management, and lawyers were starting to jump ship.

"That's what happens when law firms let themselves get too big," says retired Superior Court Judge Ralph H. Nutter, who worked at Kaplan Livingston. "They were overextended financially, and things got out of hand."

Boxer says the decision for him and Wolpert to leave had less to do with squabbles than their mutual desire to practice litigation in "a smaller shop."

Though Kaplan's litigation department had a dozen lawyers who did big cases, including the case that led to the desegregation of the Los Angeles school system, entertainment deals were its core.

"In Kaplan, the litigation department was known as the legal department," Wolpert jokes.

She and Boxer handled some of the earliest entertainment piracy cases involving the manufacturing, selling and renting of unlicensed videotapes.

"I think I have the dubious honor of being the first and probably the last lawyer in California to seize a satellite dish," Wolpert says. "I had the federal marshals come out and dismantle it and take it away. That was the great old days of the early efforts to curb piracy, which, of course, failed miserably."

Wolpert, who turns 70 in December, began her legal career when she was 42. She lived in India in the 1950s with her husband, retired UCLA historian Stanley Wolpert, and their two children.

In 1973, after she returned to the United States and her children became teenagers, Wolpert returned to law school.

Her charitable and political activities weren't enough to satisfy her "Type A ... need for 14-hour days," she says.

"I was what was called in the '70s a retread," Wolpert says, recounting how a younger lawyer who interviewed her after she graduated from UCLA law school said, "Oh, neat! You're one of those people who's being recycled."

Boxer, who is 60, graduated from UCLA and Harvard Law School. He clerked for U.S. District Judge Stanley A. Weigel in San Francisco before joining Kaplan Livingston.

As they walked through Beverly Hills, Boxer and Wolpert decided to open their own law firm. When they returned to the office, they sought out Hedges, who had been a fellow assistant U.S. attorney, and Nutter, who was regarded as one of the best trial lawyers in town.

"Ralph was a maverick and a character and never stayed any place more than five years," Wolpert says of Nutter, "but had a good reputation."

Bird had clerked for and become friends with Nutter when he sat by designation on the Court of Appeal. Nutter decided to facilitate a merger of sorts between Bird and Marella and the four Kaplan Livingston litigators.

"It really was a wonderful coming together," Wolpert says. "We all had the same view of what we wanted to do. We didn't want to be the big firm, we didn't want to administer, we wanted to go to court and practice law."

Many years later, Terry Bird jokes he couldn't get hired as an associate in his firm.

"The quality that we bring in and the law schools they come from is really amazing to me," Bird says. "It knocks my socks off when I think about it. It makes me very happy because I know that I've got those kind of people working for the firm."

That is exemplified in Mark Drooks, Gary Lincenberg and Ronald Nessim. All in their 40s, each has already handled big cases.

Drooks, a graduate of Harvard Law School, last year represented a group of wealthy clients who sued First Republic Bank over dozens of forced check endorsements. Ravich v. First Republic Bank, SC068924 (L.A. Sup. Ct., 2003)

Drooks' major client is Charles Schwab & Co. Last year, he defended Schwab in an arbitration before the National Association of Securities Dealers in Minneapolis. Drooks persuaded the regulatory agency that Schwab should not be held liable for losses an intermediary incurred on real estate investments that were placed in one of the broker's accounts. The investors were seeking between $2 million and $3 million.

He currently is in another NASD arbitration in which he represents Schwab subsidiary U.S. Trust against investors seeking between $13 million and $14 million they lost in the market crash of 2000-2001.

Lincenberg, is another Harvard Law School graduate, and a former assistant U.S. Attorney. He represents Thomas E. Schiff, who currently is caught up in the Los Angeles City Hall pay-for-play scandal. Lincenberg also represented a Claremont McKenna College psychology professor who was convicted this year of staging her own hate crime.

Nessim, a Michigan Law School graduate, is the current national chair of the American Bar Association's National White Collar Crime Committee.

Nessim, another former assistant U.S. attorney, joined the firm in 1987. He represented director Barry Levinson in a lawsuit against NBC over the profits from the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street." The case settled on the courthouse steps just before trial. He now represents the creators of Will & Grace against NBC in a similar profits dispute. He also represents some healthcare, tax and white-collar criminal defendants.

"There's obviously some pros and cons to working at a small firm. I have an incredibly diverse practice, I enjoy representing big people and little people," he says. In a bigger firm, he notes, he might get more money, but he would have to focus his practice in a more specialized area and represent only big companies.

In perhaps a backhanded compliment to the quality of Bird Marella's lawyers, the U.S. Attorney's office lured away four of them a few years ago.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Stern was one of them. A former philosophy professor, Stern graduated from law school in his 40s. He first worked at larger firms on the East Coast. When his wife, also a philosophy professor, got a job at UC Riverside, they moved to Los Angeles and he took a job at Bird Marella.

"I didn't want to get lost in a huge discovery dispute case, which is typical of what happens to young lawyers. At a firm like Bird Marella, you have more responsibility and it's a lit bit less of a sweatshop," Stern says.

Although he jumped at the chance to get into the U.S. attorney's office, Stern remains friendly with Bird Marella lawyers.

"They do good work, nobody's killing themselves, and it's a good family environment," Stern says.

These days, the only question for Bird Marella is whether it can remain independent.

A collective shudder ran through much of the Los Angeles legal community last year, when Santa Monica's O'Neill, Lysaght & Sun closed its doors.

Like Bird and Marella, O'Neill, Brian C. Lysaght and Brian Sun, or "the Brians," as they were collectively called, were former federal prosecutors and, like the Bird Marella firm, they did a mix of commercial litigation and white-collar criminal defense.

Only months earlier, Lysaght stood in his corner office overlooking the Pacific Ocean and insisted to a visitor that he had the perfect position, that he would never give it up. Now the head of Piper Rudnick's Los Angeles litigation team, Lysaght says he decided to leave his firm because he had started to long for the army of support staff that a big firm brings.

"You can get sick of trying to explain to people why you're better than the firms that are much, much larger," Lysaght says. "Now I have this nationwide group of potential referrals: my fellow partners."

After Lysaght left for Piper Rudnick, most of the O'Neill Lysaght lawyers decamped to Jones Day, including Sun, O'Neill and eight other lawyers. Lysaght says he misses many things about his old firm, especially his close working relationships with his old partners, which began in 1985 with O'Neill.

"We tried a lot of cases," he says. "You could machine gun all the lawyers in Los Angeles and you're not going to hit that many people who tried a lot of cases."

What he misses most, Lysaght says, is the camaraderie.

"Everybody in our firm, from me and O'Neill, right down to the Xerox guy, it was the longest job we'd ever held in our lives," Lysaght says. "We didn't interact in meetings. We talked to each other walking down the hall. And there was a total freedom to take on the cases we wanted to take on."

Because of O'Neill Lysaght's reputation as litigators, large East Coast firms were eager to merge with the firm to gain a West Coast presence.

"We were being courted by big firms constantly, I'm talking every month," Lysaght says.

His new mega-firm does offer benefits, Lysaght says. Right after Lysaght joined the firm, he took on a $200 million lawsuit involving Russian satellites. Robert Keese of Girardi & Keese was on the other side of the case and Lysaght ended up with a directed verdict for his client, Lockheed Martin. That decision is now on appeal.

"That's the kind of case that was harder to come by at a smaller firm," he says.

Mark E. Beck's firm, Beck, De Corso Daly, Kreindler & Harris is, along with Bird Marella, one of the last white-collar litigation boutiques in town. He, too, says he fends off constant solicitations from East Coast firms. So far, Beck has resisted.

"A lot of firms in the last 30 years moved to Los Angeles, and they basically want to buy into a firm that's got a presence, that's already known in the community because it gives them immediate stature," Beck says.

Like Bird Marella, Beck has resisted because the lawyers want more control over the cases they take.

"We don't have to worry about pleasing some partner in some far-flung location," Beck says.

Also like Bird Marella, Beck and his partners have struggled in deciding how big they should allow their firm to grow. The firm currently has 13 lawyers.

"We could add any number of associates to the mix but have chosen not to, because in the kinds of cases we are handling the clients need the level of expertise that I think only a partner can really bring," Beck says.

John D. Vandevelde's firm, Lightfoot, Vandevelde, Sadowsky, Medvene & Levine, another litigation boutique, does only white collar criminal defense and has just eight lawyers.

"Our firm likes being the size we are, likes having the independence, likes having direct control over what cases we do and how we do them," Vandevelde says.

"There's something very good about having all the partners sit down on a regular basis and discuss cases and discuss theories and feed off each other in a way that's exciting and leads to high-quality work," Vandevelde said.

Vandevelde says he saw a real need for firms like Bird Marella, who are willing to represent medium-sized entities that big firms sometimes would be unwilling to touch.

"Businesses that are not necessarily a Wall Street business or a Main Street business but are slightly more off the corporate mainstream, are not going to be attractive to some of the big firms," Vandevelde says. "Those companies still need the resources of a larger practice group and I think that's what Bird Marella offers."

"The Bird Marella firm has a solid foundation. Terry Bird and Vince Marella set a very high professional and business standard, they brought in very high quality people over the years, people who now are federal judges. And they've maintained that standard."

Beck agrees Bird Marella is an "absolutely top-notch" firm.

"There's a very deep bench there," Beck says. "When you retain Bird Marella you're getting quality senior lawyers who are well respected by the bench and by their adversaries. They're tough trial lawyers and good negotiators."

Matz joined Bird Marella in 1983 in part because he was looking for a smaller shop when leaving Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, in Los Angeles.

There were a lot of conversations in those days about how large the firm should grow, Bird, Marella and Matz all say. The firm had eight lawyers at the time. Over the years, they've gotten close to 25 lawyers but stayed shy of that number.

"There were some people in the firm who wanted us to grow and grow and grow and others who said, 'Let's do it slowly and try to maintain the character of who we are,'" Bird says. "We haven't tried to be scientific about this, but I think there's a general sense that when you get past 20-25 lawyers the real nature of the firm changes."

Matz says he was one of the voices that argued for staying small and independent.

"I had been a partner at a large practice, and it was a fine firm. I'm not sorry I did that," he says. "But when you get past a certain size, there are so many barriers to the kind of gratifying human practice that I think you get with a smaller group of people."

Bird says the temptation to grow, or to merge with a larger firm, has increased over the years.

"I think it's very safe to say that we have been approached many, many, many times over the years by large firms and that's just the norm," Bird says.

"There's not a lot of quality small firms still in existence in Los Angeles, partly because out-of-town firms are merging, swallowing up smaller firms. Because they want a presence in Los Angeles and because larger firms need help in their litigation sections," Bird says.

According to Santa Monica recruiter Alan Miles, Bird Marella has secured its place as a small-sized firm by successfully carving out a niche in white-collar criminal defense - so successful, in fact, that the firm is hotly sought after as a merger partner.

"They remain a very attractive target for firms that want to come in to town," says Miles, president of Alan Miles & Associates Inc.

Though he declines to identify the firm by name, Miles says he recently represented a well-known firm that "put out feelers" for Bird Marella but was rejected.

"This was a highly attractive firm, and if this firm couldn't attract Bird Marella, I'm not sure others could," Miles says.

Marella says, "We want to be as big as we need to be to handle the kind of cases that we want to handle, and be big enough that we can attract the best people by still offering the opportunity to rise through the ranks but still preserve the quality that we have, the culture we have, the way we like to work," Marella says.

"The reputation we have, we earned, literally the old fashioned way: one day at a time, one case at a time, one lawyer at a time," Marella says. "That's our profile and that's what it's been. Our goal now is really to enjoy that and to perpetuate that. It's not to position this firm for some this or that... I guess, in some ways, we're really naive."

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