Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison shutters after 77 years in business
Partners at the San Francisco law firm of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison decided yesterday to wind down the firm, bringing to an end a 77-year-old Bay Area institution that rose flamboyantly and rapidly on the Internet boom.
The decision came after efforts to merge with Morgan Lewis & Bockius — a 1,100-lawyer firm whose largest offices are in Philadelphia, Washington and New York — failed on Wednesday, said William Sullivan, who is head of the national securities practice at Brobeck.
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"It is a stunning and incredible tragedy," said Barry S. Levin, chairman of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, another San Francisco firm. "A lot of people are going to want to understand how a firm of the stature of Brobeck could end up dissolving. Whether it's the Internet boom or growing too fast for the volume of work or too much emphasis on one practice area, I don't know."
Brobeck employs just over 500 lawyers around the country, down from more than 900 in 2000; it lost nearly one-third of its lawyers last year. Although the firm was founded in 1926 — making it ancient in the San Francisco legal market — it became far more prominent in the late 1990's during the dot-com boom. It grew rapidly by hiring law school graduates eager to live in San Francisco and work on the fringes of the high-technology economy.
Its partners took home nearly $1.2 million each, on average, in 2000. The firm was also one of the first to offer lawyers fresh out of law school salaries on par with those paid by New York law firms — as much as $125,000.
But those hefty salaries left Brobeck with high costs, and as some of the firm's clients stopped selling their stock, merging or in some cases operating, the firm found itself in an increasingly difficult position. While Brobeck has as clients a number of big companies, including Cisco Systems, Compaq and Gap, it tried to diversify its customer base too late, lawyers at other firms said.