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August 12, 2008 6:31 PM

Smart Marketing: Bryan Cave Latest to Open Distressed Assets Group

Posted by Zach Lowe

The phone was ringing off the hook. Over the last few months, Karen Garrett, a Bryan Cave regulatory specialist, was fielding calls on an almost daily basis from lawyers across her firm seeking advice on issues related to bank collapses. It soon became clear the firm needed a group devoted to just that.

Working with John Boyle, head of the firm's client service group, Garrett put together a roster of firm clients in need of such a practice. This week, Bryan Cave firm officially launched its distressed financial institution practice. It's the latest in a string of similar launches by Am Law 100 and 200 firms, including Andrews Kurth and Thacher Proffitt & Wood, which both opened distressed assets groups in March.

"We decided to be proactive and not wait and be reactionary," Garrett says.

Analysts say creating distressed assets groups is a smart marketing strategy.

"It's the best kind of marketing," says Ward Bower, a consultant at Altman Weil. "It's casting the problem in a language clients actually use and letting them know you have expertise in this area." Troubled banks or asset-owners might not understand that bankruptcy lawyers can help them, but they'll immediately recognize that lawyers in a distressed assets group might be helpful to them, Bower says.

Garrett says it's not just about marketing the firm. Lawyers in the group already have attended one training session on FDIC rules and other topics. The firm hopes to help clients across the banking spectrum--the banks themselves, clients with deposits in failed banks, and companies or private equity groups holding contracts with those banks.

"It's a way to package the firm, but it isn't just that," Garrett says. "[This involves] language and concepts related to financial institutions that don't exist anywhere else."

It's not as simple as recognizing a need and setting up the practice. Firms with such reactionary practices might come up against conflicts, says Joseph Altonji, a consultant at Hildebrandt International. So many entities own slices of distressed assets, it might be difficult for firms--especially the big Wall Street players--to take on such work, Altonji says.

Hugh McDonald, co-chair of Thacher Proffitt's group, says his firm has had to turn down some distressed asset work because of conflicts.

Still, Garrett is confident the Bryan Cave group will be busy.

"We remember the 1980s and the early 1990s," she says, "so we know the depth of legal work that comes up when you start having a rash of bank failures and near failures."

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