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April 6, 2011 6:25 PM

Kelley Drye Picks Up L.A. Office by Acquiring Boutique

Posted by Brian Baxter

Kelley Drye & Warren announced on Wednesday that it had acquired 15-lawyer Los Angeles boutique White O'Connor Fink & Brenner.

White O'Connor, whose Web site banner declares "We Script Better Endings," is known for its expertise advising clients in the film industry and mainly handles complex business and entertainment industry litigation. (News of the merger with Kelley Drye was first reported Tuesday night by Deadline Hollywood.)

Name partner Andrew White said in a statement announcing the deal that he looked forward to expanding his firm's national presence through a merger with 325-lawyer Kelley Drye, which is based in New York. Kelley Drye's new L.A. office will initially be called Kelley Drye/White O'Connor.

Kelley Drye managing partner James Kirk was not immediately available for comment about the merger. Andrew White, name partner at White O'Connor, says that the two firms had been talking for the past five to six months. White says he was drawn to Kelley Drye because of the firm's focus on litigation and a management style that will allow White O'Connor to maintain a degree of autonomy.

"We've been working for a number of international clients in the entertainment business in places like New York and Chicago, so if we wanted to expand our practice, we needed to be in places beyond Los Angeles," White says. "These negotiations were a collaboration, and it seems like a comfortable fit for all."

Kelley Drye shuttered its last office in L.A. in March 2003. The Recorder, a sibling publication, reported at the time that the firm's outpost in L.A. consisted of about 25 lawyers. Most had joined Kelley Drye in 1984 when it first opened in L.A. through a merger with local firm Mori & Ota. Kelley Drye's last major expansion came in May 2006, when it merged with Washington, D.C.-based antitrust firm Collier Shannon Scott.

White says he met with some lawyers that had joined Kelley Drye from Collier Shannon, and that they told him good things about how the firm absorbed the boutique. White says he was aware of Kelley Drye's previous go-around in L.A., but wasn't concerned because it was mostly a "Pacific Rim transactional practice that didn't weather well certain economic changes."

White O'Connor wasn't actively seeking a merger partner before it began talking to Kelley Drye, White says. Since his firm was founded in 1996, White notes that he's been approached by at least 25 firms about a potential union. 

White O'Connor has gone through a series of changes over the years. Name partners White and Michael O'Connor, who have practiced with each other for nearly 35 years, joined what was then Christensen White Miller Fink & Jacobs in 1988 after the gradual demise of L.A. firm Wyman Bautzer. (A former colleague of White and O'Connor's at Wyman Bautzer, Jeffrey Liebster, is a managing director at legal consulting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa in New York. White says Liebster helped broker the merger with Kelley Drye.)

White and O'Connor then led a group that broke away from Christensen White Miller Fink, now known as Glaser, Weil, Fink, Jacobs, Howard, Avchen & Shapiro, after a dispute with former managing partner Terry Christensen, who would be sentenced in 2008 to three years in prison for paying a private investigator to wiretap the ex-wife of former client Kirk Kerkorian.

White O'Connor took its current name in April 2008 after former founding partner James Curry left the firm for Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton's L.A. office. "We had basic differences in philosophy and vision . . . [Curry] was attracted to and joined a large firm," White told The Recorder about his colleague's decision to join Sheppard Mullin.

The fact that White O'Connor is now merging with Kelley Drye will be taken as another sign that the traditionally smaller, independent L.A. firms are becoming a dying breed. Several large Am Law 200 firms have opened L.A. offices in recent years through mergers and lateral hires from local shops.

In February, two partners from entertainment boutique Jackoway Tyerman Wertheimer Austen Mandelbaum Morris & Klein left the firm for Venable, taking with them three associates. Dewey & LeBoeuf also recently poached ten lawyers, including former name partner Bruce Bennett, from L.A. bankruptcy boutique Hennigan Dorman.

White acknowledges the advantages of operating on a larger platform, but believes that the boutique model in L.A. will continue because some lawyers will want "complete control over their professional domain" and desire the autonomy and personal identity that only a smaller firm can provide.

"But those reasons weren't necessarily compelling to us [at White O'Connor]," says White, adding that the joint Kelley Drye/White O'Connor brand in L.A. will likely be only "transitional."

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