National Law Firm Taps Reis, Wellford to Lead Local Office

ST. LOUIS BUSINESS JOURNAL

By Rick Desloge

Friday, January 25, 2008

A major national law firm specializing in labor, employment and immigration law is coming to town.

Littler Mendelson PC hired seven attorneys from two local law firms—Thompson Coburn LLP and Brown & James PC—to launch a St. Louis office.

Charles Reis, who was chair of the employment practice group at Brown & James, and Hal Wellford, a former practice area leader in employment law at Thompson Coburn, left those firms this month to head the 44th office for Littler Mendelson, a 680-attorney firm.

Based in San Francisco, Littler is more than twice the size of Thompson Coburn, which has 290 attorneys, and more than six times the size of Brown & James, which has 112 lawyers.  Littler also is the largest of the national employment specialty law practices to establish an office here.

Reis and Wellford had each practiced at their respective law firm or its predecessor for 24 years.  Littler targeted Reis more than a year ago and first met with Wellford last September.  Now Reis, 50, and Wellford, 54, are shareholders at Littler Mendelson.

The firm also hired Thompson Coburn lawyers Steve Smith and Kimberly Yates, who are also joining Little Mendelson as shareholders, and three Brown & James associates:  Amy Nixon, Frances Barbieri and Narcisa Przulj.

Rick Juades, chairman of Thompson Coburn's labor and employment practice, said his firm still has about 30 lawyers working in that practice, the largest labor practice group of any of St. Louis' major corporate law firms.  Thompson Coburn's labor and employment practice includes the firm's employee benefits attorneys.

Firms such as Littler tend to have clients with a national presence who want to see a unified approach to their labor and employment work, said Michael Ward, managing principal of Brown & James, who said Reis built the labor practice during his tenure at the firm.  Brown & James still has about five lawyers who practice in labor and employment.

Howard Lieberman, a lawyer recruiter with Lieberman-Nelson in Minneapolis, which worked on the St. Louis deal for Littler, said the firm's national clients encouraged the law firm to open in St. Louis.  "There's work that needed to be serviced in the St. Louis area," he said, "and in southern Illinois."

Wellford and Reis said they expected their clients to follow them to their new firm.  Wellford has represented the St. Louis Blues and the St. Louis Cardinals.  Reis' clients have included national retailers with local operations, such as Nordstrom, Sears, and Brooks Brothers.

Reis and Wellford fit into Littler's business model of attracting lawyers who are experts in their field and who can leverage Littler's geographic reach, said Marko Mrkonich, president and managing director of the firm, who is based in Minneapolis.  Littler's clients usually operate across many states and deal with a range of employment issues.

"Human resources law is driven by (employee) head count," he said, and St. Louis was one of the few larger metropolitan areas where Littler did not have an office.  Detroit and Baltimore are the only others, Mrkonich said.  Littler serves the Baltimore area from an office in Washington, D.C.

Last year, Littler expanded into Cleveland; New Haven, Conn.; Orlando, Fla; and Portland, Ore., Mrkonich said, and added 180 attorneys in the last 18 months.

The national labor and employment law practices have developed in the last five years, as corporations reduce the number of law firms they use, said Ward Bower, a principal with legal management consulting firm Altman Weil Inc. in Newton Square, Pa.  "Instead of using a labor and employment law firm in every town where they do business, clients are getting one supplier."

In addition to Littler, other labor and employment firms expanding nationally include Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart PC of Atlanta and Jackson Lewis of New York, he said.

Aaron Williams, president of Aaron Consulting, Inc., a national attorney search and consulting firm based in St. Louis, said national boutique labor and employment practices have experts in niche areas, such as dealing with unions, handling reductions in labor force, and class-action employee discrimination matters.  "All of these fields call for true experts.  St. Louis has them, but are they the best in the country?  They could be challenged (by the national firms)," he said.

Ogletree Deakins, which has more than 400 lawyers and 33 offices, opened its St. Louis office last August with attorneys who all had roots at Bryan Cave, said Tim Garnett, a co-leader of the practice here with Gregg Lemley.