Thursday, April 23, 2009
After 50 Successful Years, Greenberg Glusker Team Plans for More
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
In March 1959, the United States had just acquired its 49th state, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower was half-way through his second term in office, and at the Farmer’s Market at Third and Fairfax in Los Angeles, Phil Glusker, Irving Hill and Arthur Greenberg decided to join forces and open a law firm together.
The law offices of Hill, Greenberg & Glusker opened for business April 1, in a converted Safeway store at 8907 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
Stephen Claman, the firm’s first associate, joined the firm that June. He recalls the space as a “crummy old building,” adding:
“I always used to say I was in the meat locker because it was so cold there.”
Although 50 years later, the firm now known as Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger has grown to 85 attorneys and relocated to an office building in Century City, founding partner Arthur Greenberg says things are “not much different these days,” explaining:
“The work comes in, and you do it.”
But Greenberg admits that “when you were just three lawyers, it took a lot of courage when a client came through the door and asked ‘Can you handle this,’ and the answer was invariably ‘Yes.’”
Greenberg claims that “whatever walked through the door, you became a specialist in,” and that he did “everything, across the board” in terms of legal work.
“I became a jack of all trades and a master of none,” he self-effacingly says.
Still, in the days of linoleum floors, thermofax copy machine and IBM Selectric typewriters, Claman opined that the practice of law was “not nearly as intense…as it is today.”
He remembered all of the attorneys taking time off to watch the World Series on the office’s little black-and-white television, and going to lunch together on Mondays at Nate and Al’s delicatessen to go over their cases.
“My wife wonders why I don’t want to go there,” Claman says with a laugh. “And I can’t look a corned beef sandwich in the eyes anymore.”
At those meetings, Claman recalls they “tortured” over whether they could raise their hourly rates over $100 for the partners.
“Well those days have all changed,” Claman says ruefully. “But when we began my rate was $35 an hour and I was making $500 a month.”
In 1961, Hill left the firm to become a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. He was later appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California and became its chief judge before passing away in 1998.
The firm continued to grow through the years, opening specialized practices in tax law, estate planning, and litigation.
Paula Peters joined the firm in 1969, becoming the firm’s first female attorney and later its first female partner.
Current Managing Partner Norman H. Levine joined the firm in 1976 when it was comprised of about two dozen attorneys.
He says he spent “a few days here meeting almost everyone in the firm,” and was struck by how they “seemed to like what they were doing.”
Levine says the firm has “tried to build that same camaraderie and enjoyment of the practice that I saw when I came 33-and-a-half years ago,” while expanding its practice to “really provide all the services that a business would want.”
In 1982, the firm merged with Shearer, Fields & Shearer, which expanded the firm’s entertainment practice and, as entertainment attorney Robert F. Marshall says, “put it on the map.”
The firm subsequently added bankruptcy, employment, intellectual property, and environmental law practice groups as well.
Ronald K. Fujikawa, a partner in the firm’s business and tax division who joined the firm in 2000, jokingly says that the firm’s standards for hiring “must have gone down” over the years because the firm had declined to offer him a position when he applied back in the early 1970s.
He says he still has the rejection letter, which he plans to frame and display in his office.
Dennis B. Ellman, chair of the firm’s real estate group, recalls that shortly after he joined the firm in 1981, he attended a meeting with Greenberg and the president of a bank.
“That morning, I had spoken to the president of the bank and we agreed on some point we were discussing, but at the meeting, he said completely the opposite.” Ellman says. “I started to yell, you know, I started to raise my voice, and all of a sudden, my foot, Arthur is stomping on my foot under the table.”
On the drive back to the office, Ellman says Greenberg told him, “That’s not the way we practice law here.”
The firm mentality is “we’re deal makers, not deal breakers,” Ellman explains. “You can’t make a deal if you’re pounding on the table.”
Through the years, Greenberg says his firm has “maintained a culture of respect,” and that he has “always enjoyed cordial relationships with opposing counsel,” although both Ellman and Claman say they have noted a decline in professionalism and collegiality in the legal community as a whole.
Marshall also noted that the firm is “about the only firm…that is a full service law firm that also has a practicing entertainment group within it.” He says that such a firm structure was common in the late 70s and early 80s, but “by the late 80s, that model had completely changed and those people were out of business.”
Levine remembers in 1984 an article about the firm asked whether midsized firms could survive. “People ask us the same question 25 years later,” he says, but as Greenberg puts it, “the proof is in the pudding.”
Ellman suggests that the “key to survival is having good lawyers to start with, having good training at the beginning of their careers and lawyers sharing their expertise with other lawyers, passing on their experience to other lawyers, and making this a great place to work.”
Fujikawa says that “mentoring at this firm is taken much more seriously than it is at most other firms.”
Marshall emphasizes that the firm’s associates are “not training through seven lawyers… [but] see and learn from those who are the most senior.” The firm also invests its junior associated with “more authority, client contacts and so forth in an effort to make them senior lawyers in the clients’ eyes,” he says. “Some firms don’t do that.”
Levine maintains that “training is different here,” because associates are “working directly with the partner, not reporting to a senior lawyer who reports to a more senior lawyer.”
For example, when Levine conducted his first deposition as an attorney, he remembers Greenberg was “sitting right next to me, tapping me on the elbow, telling me what to do and teaching me how to take a depo.”
Another distinction between Greenberg Glusker and other firms that Fujikawa notes is that the firm has not grown “unreasonably large in good times,” or as Levine says, “grown just to grow.”
He notes that many other firms have grown rapidly in the past years, and are “highly leveraged,” with many more associates than there are partners in the firm.
Fujikawa says that he “very often will be involved in deals” with only three other attorneys from his firm, while the other side is represented by a partner, an associate, and a couple of junior associates.
“But I have never felt overlawyered or overmatched in any transaction,” he says. “We tend to do things more efficiently, and just as competently.”
Such “lean and mean” staffing is a “model that will ensure success,” Fujikawa opines. “It’s the over-leveraged firms, the ones with 3-to-1 associate to partner ratios, are the ones that aren’t going to survive.”
Ellman admits “it was a concern, for many years, getting to the next generation,” as the practice grew and the founding partners aged. Greenberg, 81, is still active in the firm, and Glusker maintains an office on the premises, but registered as inactive with the State Bar in 1997.
“A bunch of us have tried to pick up the mantle” from the founding partners, Ellman says, and having seen the younger lawyers “really come into their own,” he says the firm is no longer worried.
Levine adds that the firm is “confident that this firm will survive not only the founding generation, but those that come after.”
Greenberg says, “In my perception, having been here for 50 years, the best is yet to be.”
As the firm moves into its second half-century, Levine says it is “well positioned well for what the trends will be in the next couple of years.”
Among those trends, he says is a shift in clients from hiring law firms to hiring specific lawyers.
Ellman predicts that “pricing will become a big issue” in years to come, and that “it already has with corporate counsel and high net worth individual types of clients.”
As legal fees have risen “significantly” over the past decade, “it has really got to a point where I don’t think it can sustain itself,” Ellman declares. “Now that the economy is experiencing difficult times, the clients have realized that legal fees are really out of control.”
Having maintained little debt, controlling the growth of the firm, Levine says that the firm is “not going to have to change our staffing practice as other firms will.”
The firm is also readying itself to move into the future by renovating the offices which have housed the firm for the past 40 years, and anticipates the project will be complete by September.
It will also host a private gala for firm members and select clients in celebration of its golden anniversary on Sunday at the Montague Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company