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Latham & Watkins ranks No. 1 in San Diego

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Latham & Watkins ranks first in San Diego as the firm area corporate directors go to for legal advice, according to the latest survey by Corporate Board Member magazine.

The firm ranked 10th nationwide, and stole the top spot in San Diego from Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, which dropped to second place this year. Latham & Watkins ranked third in San Diego in 2003.

The magazine surveyed corporate directors at public companies across the country, dividing 2,152 directors into 50 groups based on the location of their companies within the top 50 metropolitan statistical areas, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

The magazine sent surveys to 575 directors with companies or home addresses in San Diego; 40, or 7 percent, responded, according to Jamie Tassa, spokesperson for the magazine. She said the response rate was consistent with cities across the country and in the history of the survey, which began in 2000.

Tassa said law firms are starting to take the rankings more seriously, and some are upset when they find out they're not on the list.

"What makes these ratings unique is that they are made not by other lawyers, from afar, but by the people ultimately responsible for hiring corporate law firms, weighing their advice, and paying their attention-getting bills," said William Rukeyser, editorial director of Corporate Board Member.

The magazine lists the top five firms in a given city and the top 20 firms nationwide. New York-based Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom was ranked first nationwide for the fourth straight year.

"I like being No. 1," said Scott Wolfe, partner-in-charge of Latham & Watkins' North County office and the head of its corporate practice. Wolfe said the rankings are probably more significant for a firm in first place. "We've been here 24 years but we probably don't have the name recognition in San Diego as Gray Cary and Luce Forward," he said.

Luce Forward Hamilton & Scripps ranks fourth on the list, dropping from its No. 2 spot last year. Luce Forward is the only San Diego-based firm in the top five and has offices in Carmel Valley and Del Mar, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The remaining top five have offices nationwide and even overseas.

"This is a great compliment to Luce Forward's business practice," said Robert Bell, the firm's managing partner.

No. 1 Latham & Watkins has 21 offices worldwide, including 10 in the United States, six in Europe, two in Asia and one in Moscow. The firm opened its San Diego office in 1980.

Cooley Godward rose to third place among San Diego firms this year, compared with fourth place in 2003. San Francisco-based Cooley Godward came to San Diego in 1993.

Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe made its first appearance on the San Diego top five this year. Heller Ehrman, which is a relative newcomer to San Diego, ranked seventh in 2003, according to Tassa. Heller Ehrman has 13 offices across the United States as well as in Hong Kong, Beijing and Singapore.

The firm pushed Baker & McKenzie out of the top five in San Diego. Baker & McKenzie ranked fifth in 2003 and came in sixth among the top 20 firms nationwide in 2004.

"It's exciting for us to get that kind of recognition in San Diego," said Mike Kagnoff, a shareholder in the local office of Heller Ehrman. He said the firm has worked to expand its corporate practice here in the last year and is "thrilled" by the results.

"It's very competitive and not only with the five firms that are listed," said Latham's Wolfe. "There are other very good firms in San Diego, and there are some new firms moving to San Diego because they think the environment is good here for corporate legal practice."

Wolfe attributed Latham & Watkins' surge to an inordinate number of public offerings in biotechnology. The firm has had nine since last September after about a year and a half of little activity in initial public offerings or follow-on offerings.

"That's something new and it reflects the vibrancy of the biotech market," Wolfe said. "Biotech is really driving some of the increase in new law firms moving to San Diego."

In the last two months Jones Day and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati -- both national law firms -- opened offices in San Diego with plans to focus on the biotech and high-tech markets. Cleveland-based Jones Day ranks seventh on the magazine's top 20 law firms in the country and has offices in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Wilson Sonsini was ranked No. 18.

William King, founder and chairman of Board Member Inc., which publishes the magazine, said the rankings demonstrate the competitiveness of corporate practice, particularly at the metro level. Firms tied, sometimes for multiple places, in 28 cities, most of them smaller markets such as Buffalo, N.Y., Memphis, Tenn., Tampa, Fla., and Richmond, Va. The closest tie was in Orlando, Fla., where two firms tied for second place and four tied for fourth place.

There were no ties in San Diego, whose close rankings over the last few years show an increased level of competitiveness.

"It's definitely getting more competitive," said Heller Ehrman's Kagnoff. "That being said, for the most part you have the same cast of characters."

Whether San Diego's bustling technology economy will support the offices of all the nationwide firms opening offices here is unclear, according to Frederick Muto, partner-in-charge of Cooley Godward's San Diego office.

"I think there's a lot of growth here -- that's why all those firms have come -- but there probably isn't the kind of growth that would support all" the new offices, he said.

Muto said the magazine's survey is just one measure of firm's success. Other methods include the number of public companies a firm represents and the number of public offerings it manages. Cooley has had three public offerings this year and has five more planned.

"It's a reflection of the leading firms in the city," Muto said. "All these surveys are somewhat subjective."

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