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What's Old is New

By Shane Nelson | Jul. 10, 2023

Jul. 10, 2023

What's Old is New

For 100 years, Hill, Farrer & Burrill has made its mark on the city of Los Angeles.

Paul Porter, Casey Morris, Jenner Tseng and William Meyers.

Hill, Farrer & Burrill LLP has been around for a century, but attorneys at the downtown Los Angeles firm aren't planning to let its extraordinary history define its future.

"When you come up on a marker like 100 years, you have to make a decision: 'Is that long enough or do you want to keep this enterprise going?'" said of counsel Dean E. Dennis, who first started working as an attorney at the firm in 1983. "We certainly are not resting on our laurels. For us, it's not really a victory lap. ... We're looking at it as an inspiration."

Founded in 1923, the firm started out representing clients in eminent domain cases, according to Dennis, who said early on "the partners actually borrowed against future eminent domain verdicts to get them through the Depression."

That longtime focus on eminent domain has closely tied the firm to the physical history of Los Angeles, Dennis said.

"We represented Howard Hughes and the condemnations for Marina del Rey," he explained. "We handled famous cases in the '50s involving the condemnation for the Palmdale Airport and Walt Disney. ... The famous curve through downtown up the 101 to go around the old Brew 102 property was something we worked on. You can really track the history of the city with the practice."

Libraries, hospitals, freeways, Union Station, the arena -- Dennis said the firm has handled cases impacting them all and is still busy these days tackling matters shaping Los Angeles.

"We're currently working on putting the Metro under Century City Mall," he noted. "And I have two cases right now that sit under center court of the Intuit Dome in Inglewood."

The firm has, however, substantially expanded its focus beyond eminent domain during the past century, branching out over the years into real estate, labor and employment, general business litigation, corporate transactional work, trust and estate litigation.

Partner William W. Steckbauer brought his real estate practice to Hill, Farrer & Burrill in January 2020 after running his own firm for nearly three decades.

"For a guy who hasn't worked for another firm for 28 years, going from my own practice and my own firm to another firm was a big deal," Steckbauer recalled. "Working at a firm that I didn't manage, that I didn't control -- it was a big, scary step. But when I met the guys at Hill Farrer, it became a very simple decision for me."

Steckbauer had worked on cases with Hill, Farrer & Burrill and said the firm has always been full of sharp lawyers who know what they're doing, but the approach to adding attorneys and their practices to the existing business impressed him.

"They had a program in place that they've been using for years," Steckbauer explained. "We looked at it and said, 'This is perfect. We can come in, and we can do what we want to do. Work as hard as you want, make as much money as we want. Work as little as you want, make less money.' As long as you meet your overhead component -- which wasn't complicated -- it was a real simple process, and nobody was looking over their shoulders."

Steckbauer noted that the longevity of so many of the attorneys at the firm was also especially impressive.

"I saw that a lot of their lawyers had been there their entire careers -- some of them over 40, 50 years," he explained. "They'd never gone anywhere else, which is very rare in the legal industry."

Dennis agreed that the 40-attorney firm has a well-established tradition of long running careers.

"Our CFO just retired last week after 34 years, and she was only 15th on the longevity chart here at the firm," he said, touting the firm's healthy culture. "We have 70 people that work on these two floors for us, and half those people have been here 20 years or more."

Dennis said the firm has, meanwhile, enacted a number of recent initiatives aimed at installing first-class technology and reconsidering what the physical space will look like in five years, as well as addressing themes of diversity and inclusion as they continue to grow.

"We're actively looking for good, young attorneys to join us," Dennis said. "And LA is one of the most diverse cities in the world. How do we represent and how do we service that client base in a way that reflects the community?"

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP partner Amy R. Forbes, who went to USC Law School with Dennis and has opposed him on several cases, described the litigator as "the opposing counsel I'd most like to have a beer with."

"He's sort of a mild-mannered guy, but he is a very, very tenacious litigator," Forbes said of Dennis. "He's extremely knowledgeable. He's creative. He's very thoughtful, and he's just a super nice guy. But do not let the congenial manner fool you. He's certainly no pushover."

Considering his four-decade career in property rights and eminent domain at Hill, Farrer & Burrill, Dennis said he felt extremely fortunate.

"I'm actually proud of the firm for a place that could be filled with dinosaurs," he said with a laugh. "When you're a 100-year-old firm, you're bound to have that possibility be your reputation, but I think we buck that trend, and we're very much looking ahead."


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