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Nov. 13, 2023

Seyfarth Shaw celebrates 50 years in Los Angeles

While the firm has seen great change, professionalism and regard remain key, its lawyers say.

Justin L. Stewart / Special to the Daily Journal

Retired litigator George E. Preonas worked for 47 years at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, and he was based for nearly all of that time in the firm's Los Angeles office, which he joined just a few months after its November 1973 opening five decades ago.

"In the late '70s -- or somewhere along that line -- I said, 'One day, we're going to have 20 lawyers in our firm,'" Preonas recalled with a chuckle. "That was my prediction. Who knew? Nobody knew how large law firms would get. We never heard of a 1,000-person law firm or a 3,000-person law firm, but now that's the way the world has changed."

Celebrating its 50th anniversary in Los Angeles this month, Seyfarth's Century City and Downtown L.A. offices are home to 153 lawyers s, and globally, the firm employs more than 940 attorneys. Founded in 1945 in Chicago, the firm now operates from 13 U.S. locations and five international offices.

But in 1973, Seyfarth's decision to open a Los Angeles office was highly unusual. "Our firm was really a pioneer," Preonas said, noting that co-founder Lee C. Shaw was the driving force behind the decision to open an office to better serve the firm's West Coast clients.

Preonas clarified that Jones Day also opened a location in Los Angeles around that same time.

"In fact, we shared office space for a while," Preonas added. "But back then, it was just an unusual thing because there was just the two of us as out-of-state firms that had moved into California. ... Today, it's very common to have multistate firms, but at that time it was very unusual."

A defense labor attorney throughout his career -- regularly working on behalf of hoteliers, newspapers, manufacturers and insurance companies -- Preonas noted that in Seyfarth's early days in Los Angeles the firm represented clients impacted by the 1973 table grape boycotts and the violent Coachella Valley farmworkers strike. This ultimately helped propel the passage of the Agriculture Labor Relations Act in 1975.

"In the late '70s, when the agricultural work was at its peak, we were involved in a great many of the key cases that shaped the law at that time," Preonas said.

The continuing passage of federal statutes changed the firm's labor and employment practice over the years, according to Preonas, who explained that as labor unions became less prominent, individual employment litigation increased.

"California started allowing tort damages for wrongful termination, and we started seeing lots and lots of sexual discrimination and harassment cases and race discrimination cases," he said. "We started seeing a lot of individual employment claims. Then in the later years, we saw a huge number of class action suits, where people were finding little gotchas in the Labor Code."

Seyfarth's Los Angeles offices also added practice areas, looking to become a full-service shop for clients, according to Preonas, who said attorneys who handled real estate, business, general litigation and ERISA law were added. By the time retired in 2015, Preonas said Seyfarth had one of the largest presences of any out-of-state firm in Los Angeles.

"There are a lot of firms based outside of California that have tried opening up offices here, and they're no longer here," Preonas said. "They left; they failed. We succeeded in a way that I don't think anyone else has."

Nicholas J. Waddles, who is now comanaging partner for Seyfarth's Century City office, first started working in 2006 for the firm in Los Angeles, and said much has also changed over his 18-year tenure there, particularly in technological innovation, work-life balance and diversity.

"When I started practicing in 1996, diversity wasn't even something we talked about," Waddles said. "But when I got to Seyfarth, early on I was involved in our diversity action team in the Century City office, and I was really impressed with the leaders of the office -- who at that time, to be frank, were really older white guys. But they weren't just giving diversity lip service. They were really curious about it, and they were solicitous from diverse lawyers about what we needed to be successful and looking for opportunities to introduce us to clients and to take us along on pitch meetings and make sure we were trained."

Waddles, who is African American, pointed to Seyfarth's leadership today as a solid example of how the firm's diversity has evolved over his time there.

"You can pull up the executive committee on our firm's website," Waddles said, "and you'll see we have four women -- one woman is Latina -- and there are two African Americans on our executive committee of seven people."

Waddles also said the firm's expectations about the way attorneys practice has evolved significantly, pointing to substantial leave provided to lawyers who become new parents.

"That includes members of our LGBTQ community, and whether they adopt a child or whether they have a child themselves or whether they have a child through a surrogate, it really doesn't matter," he explained. "We have leave for both parents."

Waddles, who is also a parent, noted the firm makes a point of operating with a different perspective on the balance between life and work.

"We have flexible work arrangements, depending on what someone needs and what the firm needs," he explained. "So that we don't end up in a situation where there's only one path to being a partner, and people feel like they have to make a decision between being the kind of parent they want to be and being a really good lawyer."

Seyfarth's Los Angeles attorneys have taken part in many noteworthy cases over the years. Waddle mentioned a $3 billion award by a Santa Clara jury in 2016 for its client, Hewlett-Packard Co., in a breach of contract trial against Oracle Corp. Hewlett-Packard Co. v. Oracle Corp., 1-11-cv-203163 (Santa Clara Super. Ct., filed June 15, 2011).

"Seyfarth litigator Camille Olson was at counsel table during the trial in a first chair capacity," Waddles said. "And after six weeks of trial, including testimony from the top executives at Silicon Valley giants Intel, HP and Oracle, it took the jury less than a day to come back with the full verdict asked for by HP."

While much has certainly changed for Seyfarth over its five decades in Los Angeles, Waddles and Preonas insisted the firm's long-term commitment to a collection of core values has helped ensure its growth.

"It happens by creating a culture where people are given the opportunity to succeed," Preonas said.

Waddles added that operating with respect has been a crucial component of Seyfarth's Los Angeles culture.

"We've always been committed to treating everyone with regard," Waddles explained. "That includes the way we treat our clients, but also the way that we treat our staff. When we go out recruiting for other lawyers, that's one of the things we want to know: 'How are you in the office?' We don't have room for a lot of screaming lawyers with giant egos. ... It's important to us to really make sure that when we bring people in, that they continue to treat the other members of our team with professionalism and with regard."


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