The recent departure of several high-profile partners from Bullivant Houser Bailey and the collapse of two of the law firm's regional offices have Portland's legal community buzzing about the law firm's chances for survival.
Bullivant Houser, a 73-year-old firm, has shrunk from about 160 lawyers at its peak in 2006 to around 100 today. Bullivant Houser also announced in March the closure of its Sacramento office. Meanwhile, its Las Vegas office has just two lawyers in a space that had been built for about 30 attorneys.
Beth Skillern, the firm's managing shareholder, confirms to WW her firm was recently in talks with a large East Coast firm interested in acquiring Bullivant Houser. But all scuttlebutt aside, Skillern says Bullivant Houser is in no danger of going the way of the dodo and becoming the first large Portland law firm in recent memory to disappear.
"Rumors of our death are greatly exaggerated," Skillern says. "We've made some intentional changes, but we're not in danger of going out of existence."
As recently as December, Skillern says, Bullivant Houser was in talks with Virginia-based LeClair Ryan to be taken over. Skillern says LeClair Ryan approached Bullivant Houser about acquiring the Portland-based firm, which also maintains offices in Seattle and San Francisco. Skillern says Bullivant Houser declined the offer.
"We concluded that it was not the right mix for us," Skillern says.
Skillern says LeClair Ryan is the only firm Bullivant Houser has engaged with in acquisition talks. But she declined to rule out the possibility that the firm will yet be acquired by another firm.
"Never say never," Skillern says. "We're certainly not actively seeking that."
Before the recession, Bullivant Houser undertook aggressive build-outs in Las Vegas and Sacramento, adding enough space to house about 30 lawyers in each location. Skillern says much of their space in both of those cities is now being subleased, and Bullivant Houser is moving back to its core practice in business law.
Dan Lindahl, a former partner at Bullivant Houser, says he left in 2008 because the firm seemed to be showering its executives with huge pay increases and bonuses. At the same time, Lindahl says, the board was pursuing a risky plan to expand out of the firm's core competency doing legal work for insurance firms.
"It was all about how we're going to make more money, even though people were doing fine by any measure," Lindahl says. "Now the very people who settled on the business strategy have all left the firm."
Recent high-profile departures from Bullivant Houser include:
• Former president Dave Ernst and prominent litigator Chrys Martin, who both moved to Davis Wright Tremaine.
• Jeff Eden, former shareholder-in-charge at the Portland office, who is moving to Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt.
• Steve English, formerly Bullivant's biggest rainmaker, who moved to Perkins Coie.
• Taylor Florence, former chairman of the board, who moved from Bullivant Houser's Sacramento office to Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell.
Andy Giegerich has chronicled many of these moves in the Portland Business Journal.