Global law firms are popping up in Utah, bringing competition that could increase legal costs for consumers but also new opportunities for women and attorneys of color in the state.
They’re also changing the local legal market, causing some familiar names to rethink how to move forward. Last month, the Salt Lake City firm Jones Waldo announced it was joining another longtime firm, Parsons Behle & Latimer.
This “is not an entirely new phenomenon to Salt Lake,” said attorney Carl Barton, pointing to the era when regional firms like Holland & Hart, where he is a partner, moved into the area in the 1990s. But now, he said, there are “different players” and a “different kind of pressure.”
Since September, at least four international law firms have announced offices in Salt Lake City, including Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Kirkland & Ellis, Mayer Brown, and Foley & Lardner. They join a list of other large entities already in Utah.
Wilson Sonsini has snagged two former Utah Supreme Court justices for its team — most recently adding Christine Durham, the first woman to serve on Utah’s high court and as its first female chief justice — this month.
“You see a lot of these firms coming in to try and capitalize on the great things about our state and ... our economy, and I’m not going to fault them for that,” said Nathan Thomas, president of Jones Waldo. “But what’s also interesting ... is that for the most part, we’re not seeing a lot of additions of lawyers from elsewhere.”
Instead, the big firms are aggressively recruiting attorneys already working in Utah, creating competition in the local legal market, including by offering higher salaries.
“They have contacted all of us,” said Shawn Ferrin, CEO and chairperson at Parsons, and have thrown “a pretty wide net and tried to get as many lawyers as possible.”
There are a couple of reasons why new names are popping up in the Beehive State.
“One is the Utah economy is incredibly strong,” he said. Plus, “there’s a real talent pool here.”
Some of the multinational firms moving in are “not really here for clients in this market,” Barton said. “They’re here to create an outpost for a bunch of young lawyers ... to do work for their clients on the coasts.” Barton guesses “it’s a way for them to manage overhead and increase profits.”
At the same time, “there’s a very small number of the national firms,” he said, who “want to try and get their foot in the door,” such as by working with Utah’s growing tech industry.
“My kind of ongoing joke,” Thomas said, “is that these national firms are just catching up to the rest of us who decided this was a pretty good idea” for a place to work and live.
Kimberly Neville, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney, said she thinks the move to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic also helped “opportunities to expand elsewhere,” including to Utah.
”My own firm is a national, but we’ve been here for maybe 30, 40 years,” she said. “... It used to be that we were a rare thing, and now we’re part of a much larger group.”
Wilson Sonsini already had clients in the Beehive State before opening its Salt Lake City office, according to Douglas Clark, managing partner, and it has SixFifty, an automated software subsidiary that aims to make the legal process more “efficient and affordable,” located in Midvale.
Wilson Sonsini is also focused on technology and life sciences, which made Utah attractive, he said. Plus, there’s a lot of legal talent here, including from the state’s law schools, according to Clark.
Former Justice Deno Himonas, who retired from the Utah Supreme Court at the beginning of March, joined Wilson’s team in Salt Lake City, he said, because he was ready for a “new chapter” in his career. It also helped that he went to law school with Clark in the 1980s, according to Himonas.
Himonas said he thinks that the national and international firms moving in is “a natural evolution.” He isn’t concerned, he said, about seeing recent changes to longtime Utah firms because changes happen as “part of a healthy, competitive legal environment.” Himonas said he also thinks Prince, Yeates & Geldzahler closing in 2019, and Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall & McCarthy merging with Fabian Clendenin, before that, happened separately from the developments going on now.
What excites Himonas about working with a big firm such as Wilson, he said, is the ability to do local work, in addition to national and international cases.
“Utah lawyers have been present on the ground for clients, frankly, all over the country for a while,” Clark said. “That’s just going to increase with the acceleration of this market.”
Utahns may wonder how all these changes will affect their ability to hire a lawyer. According to Barton, “it’s probably going to have the effect that it’s had in other markets, that billing rates for lawyers are probably going to go up.”
Meanwhile, Neville said she doesn’t see these new firms in Salt Lake City competing “for your everyday divorce case,” custody battle, employment dispute or criminal case.
“I think the large majority of attorneys won’t be affected,” she said, “... because most lawsuits, for example, that are filed in Utah are under a quarter of a million dollars. And the overwhelming majority of the public will not be using the services that are coming here.”
In their statements announcing their Salt Lake City offices, some the international firms have said they want to serve Utah’s “innovative companies” and the technology, investment and startup communities.
“It’s important to have variety in the legal market” while still making sure there is a “true Utah firm that’s able to provide services to Utah clients,” Thomas said. That’s what the leaders of Jones Waldo and Parsons said they are hoping to do by coming together.
Last year, as the team at Jones Waldo began talking about the best way to move forward in Utah’s changing legal market, Parsons reached out about the potential for a “joining forces of the lawyers,” Ferrin said.
“It just seemed like the time was right,” he said.
Together, the firms wanted to create a Salt Lake City-based organization “that would be a true Intermountain presence, that gives a great quality of service that can compete with anybody around the country, but really is ingrained in our community and culture,” Thomas said.
The logistics are still being ironed out, according to Ferrin, but the hope is to have about 30 Jones Waldo lawyers join the roughly 170 attorneys working for Parsons in its Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Montana offices, he said.
Women and attorneys of color
As the two firms talked about coming together, Liz Butler, chairperson of Jones Waldo, said “it was really important to me that Parsons has the same strong track record that Jones Waldo has of promoting women and putting them in positions of leadership.”
The organization Women Lawyers of Utah has released reports showing how “it’s very difficult for women to feel like they’re on equal footing with men in the legal marketplace and experience the same level of promotion” in the Beehive State, Butler said.
With these global firms coming to Utah, “it’s just been crazy with how many people are trying to recruit women and attorneys of color,” said Neville, a former president of Women Lawyers of Utah, adding that her own phone “rang off the hook with head hunters.”
“There are lots of ... publicly traded companies that will not fund their work to firms unless their demographics ... are reflective of the business community,” she said. “So, there’s a lot of competition in that space” and “not enough women and attorneys of color available to do the work that corporate clients want.”
“That could be, frankly, good for some of those ladies,” Neville said. “They will be heavily recruited and well paid for what they do.”
The changing legal market has also driven competition for the many women who work as high-end legal secretaries, paralegals and in information technology and marketing support, she said.
“We’ve had legal secretary” and “paralegal postings we can’t fill,” she said. “We’ve had to look out of state for a lot of resources and go remote.”
Neville said she hopes that “the newcomers” to Utah will realize “this is a community that’s worked very hard to improve its diversity” and “access for women in the law.”
“There are a lot of needs that can be met with funding and resources,” she said. “So I hope that we’ll see that they will become partners in our legal community with us, support our local law schools, support our affinity bars and support some of the organizations that do really good work to help meet the gaps that big law can’t meet.”