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Clients, convenience attract law firms to North County

A type of frontier for businesses exists near the merge of Interstates 5 and 805 just north of Sorrento Valley.

The pioneers -- including large concentrations of biotech and high-tech companies -- have charged across it from the traditional business communities in central San Diego to establish a new world in North County.

In setting up their companies in the areas around the University of California at San Diego, in Sorrento Valley and then moving north to Del Mar and even Carlsbad, they seem to have pulled the center of gravity of the county's business community with them.

Not far behind, like camp followers, others have moved up from downtown to provide services. In particular, law offices have been sensitive to the northward migration. At least half a dozen major firms have recently opened offices in Carmel Valley and Del Mar Heights.

"We are a service business," said Bob Buell, managing partner of Luce, Forward, Hamilton and Scripps, which opened a North County office about a year ago.

"Lawyers service their clients, and if a number of important clients say, 'Gee, it would be great to be able to walk into your office in Carmel Valley/Del Mar,' then you ought to think seriously about it," he said.

Luce Forward occupies a spot near several other firms on El Camino Real, which meanders through the Carmel Valley and Del Mar Heights areas in northwest San Diego.

"The area has a lot of tech companies and a lot of what I would call new economy companies," Buell said. "And we also are able to use the location for a lot of our more traditional companies that have North County offices."

Luce Forward has about 18 attorneys at 11988 El Camino Real - a small outpost compared to the firm's 215 lawyers assigned all over the state and in New York.

Pillsbury Winthrop, which employs 900 lawyers worldwide, houses 25 in a branch just down the street at 11682 El Camino Real. The firm was one of the first to venture north of the merge, moving a detachment from its downtown offices in December 1998.

"It's very hard to service Carlsbad clients from downtown," said Managing Partner Sue Hodges. "Our corporate attorneys are completely convinced that clients in these sectors like to have their lawyers physically close to them. ... We have perceived a huge reluctance upon the part of the executives of those companies to come south of the merge."

In a practical sense, having a North County location -- or at least an office in the University Towne Center area -- has become a necessity to be perceived as a player by the tech industries, she said.

Foley & Lardner, another huge national firm, opened an El Camino Real office in August. But it was more by happy accident than clever design, according to Managing Partner George "Jody" Root. The firm ran out of space downtown. There were no more adjacent offices available and Root decided -- for the convenience of the lawyers, many of whom live in North County -- to move some of his staff to the Del Mar Heights area.

Since then, he has discovered that "there is a real difference in the businesses that are located in that North County coastal corridor. They are very laid back. And they like to do business in that area. They don't want to drive past the merge."

Another major firm, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, started a 15-attorney office in Del Mar Heights in September 2001.

And a little more than two years ago, Morrison & Foerster moved into San Diego County. But rather than locate downtown, the firm set up a single office north of state Route 56 to serve technology clients. It has since grown from a few lawyers to several dozen.

In April 2000, Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison decided to abandon its downtown San Diego location altogether and move north to serve the booming tech economy. The firm was forced to lay off some attorneys in the wake of the sector's collapse, but it has no plans to relocate its San Diego County office back downtown. In fact, Brobeck will move its 80 local attorneys to a new, three-story building at 12390 El Camino Real on March 17.

Martin Nichols, head of the firm's business and technology group, said there is no need for a downtown office.

"If you're a law firm like us -- that really focuses on technology companies, and start-up technology companies -- you just don't see a lot of those folks downtown," he said.

"I've seen more focus on North County (in the last two years)," Nichols said. "This tends to be the place people want to be. Some people are going even farther north."

For more about the legal community in North County, read tomorrow's paper. A list of some of the North County law firms will be included.

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