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Chicago law firms expand in Charlotte

  Legal Business  -   POSTED: 2008/01/10 13:04

In 1998, Chicago law firm Mayer Brown established an office in Charlotte to be close to that city's bankers. A decade later, its local rivals are trying to muscle in on what has become a lucrative financial-services center.

Winston & Strawn became the latest to jump into the heated Charlotte legal market, announcing Wednesday that it hired away six partners from one of the city's leading firms, Kennedy Covington Lobdell & Hickman. The Chicago-based law firm anticipates that it will add up to a dozen more lawyers from Kennedy Covington, said Thomas Fitzgerald, Winston & Strawn's managing partner.

Charlotte's banking giants, Bank of America Corp. and Wachovia Corp., have turned this drowsy Sunbelt city into a financial powerhouse second only to New York. Chicago once competed for such financial stature when it was home to two of the nation's biggest banks, Continental and First Chicago.

But pro-small-bank laws in Illinois placed so many restrictions on big institutions that expansion became difficult and resulted in today's fragmented Chicago banking market. Consolidation may be on its way, though, after Bank of America acquired LaSalle Bank last year.

In fact, Bank of America's growing presence in Chicago was one of the factors that led Winston & Strawn to target Charlotte for expansion, Fitzgerald said. The firm counts both Charlotte banks as clients in its corporate finance and lending practice but wanted to deepen those ties.

"We believe that our existing relationship with those clients will be enhanced with these individuals," Fitzgerald said. "This was an opportunity to bring additional depth and strength to our lending practice."

To build a stronger business relationship with the Charlotte banks, it helps to have lawyers in the city, said Jay Monge, a partner at Mayer Brown, who relocated to Charlotte from New York in 1999. The year before, Mayer Brown had acquired a boutique tax practice in Charlotte that did a lot of work for Bank of America's predecessor, NationsBank. (In 1998, NationsBank acquired San Francisco's BankAmerica, which had earlier purchased Continental.)

Katten Muchin Rosenman followed Mayer Brown to Charlotte, opening an office in 1999. There was little expansion to Charlotte after that, as Chicago firms looked overseas at the beginning of the decade. Some firms are also reluctant to move to Charlotte because the lawyers there generally charge lower rates than those in Chicago.

But the growth of the Charlotte banks has powered the city's economy, spurring demand for legal services in other areas such as real estate and litigation. Other financial institutions also have sprung up to service the banks, further diversifying Charlotte's financial-services industry.

"For multioffice firms that aspire to have a significant financial practice, Charlotte is a critical element," Monge said.

Indeed, last year three national law firms, including Chicago's Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, opened offices in Charlotte. The others were Atlanta's King & Spalding and New York-based Dewey Ballantine, now Dewey & LeBoeuf.

"It's been a very good legal market for us," said Elliott Portnoy, chairman of Sonnenschein, which recently added a group of litigators in Charlotte.

Winston & Strawn becomes the second national firm to move into Charlotte in 2008, following Atlanta's Powell Goldstein. The moves send a strong signal that the demand for financial-services lawyers in Charlotte has not abated, even with the cloudier outlook for the financial-services industry brought on by the meltdown in the subprime mortgage market.

"This short-term turbulence is not going to affect our ability to build a long-term office," Fitzgerald said.

The more firms that move to Charlotte, the more it helps dispel any lingering notion among lawyers of Charlotte as a sleepy backwater, Monge said. To any naysayers, he likes to boast that Charlotte, unlike Chicago, has a Dean & DeLuca gourmet food store. More than one.

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