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Closing of Las Vegas law firm marks end of an era

Under the category of nothing lasts forever, after 47 years, as of New Year’s Day, Nevada’s premier law firm is no more.

Lionel Sawyer & Collins, the top gaming firm with the most political juice in the state moves into the realm of history as 19 lawyers, including founder Sam Lionel, join a large regional law firm called Fennemore Craig, which at 130 years old is the largest continuously operating law firm in Arizona.

Many of us have never known Nevada without Lionel Sawyer, one of the last large Nevada firms, which was the first to expand to Reno but never expanded out of state.

Started in 1967 by Lionel, former Gov. Grant Sawyer and Jon Collins, some found it hard to understand why it would shut its doors. This is not a merger of two firms. These are lawyers moving to another firm.

The answer: Fennemore Craig gains a foothold into gaming clients it never had in Nevada and a more substantial Nevada presence, while attorneys leaving Lionel Sawyer gain access to the benefits and expertise of a large regional firm.

“The legal profession has gone through profound changes, and the old model of a law firm doesn’t meet those needs,” said former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, one of nine Las Vegas attorneys and 10 Reno attorneys now with Fennemore Craig. “This represents a passing of an era. In 1967 when Lionel Sawyer started, most law firms in Las Vegas were three, four or five attorneys at the most. But the winds of change have been blowing. This is kind of an evolution.”

Fennemore Craig is a purely commercial firm and does no criminal work. But it wants to build a gaming practice, according to John Mowbray, managing partner of the Las Vegas office of Fennemore Craig. And it will expand its government affairs efforts.

Lionel Sawyer was the first law firm to expand to Reno, Bryan said. But it focused on Nevada, the only state with legalized gaming until 1979.

Today gaming is worldwide.

Mowbray said Lionel Sawyer’s end is a loss to the community. “Lionel Sawyer set the standard and elevated the practice of law in Nevada. They leave a great legacy.”

Bryan said Lionel Sawyer’s legacy is that “it developed a standard of excellence with all-star lawyers.”

Many lawyers just out of law school were mentored by older lawyers, Bryan said. The firm provided a venue for many lawyers to learn their craft. Out of dozens of lawyers who started their legal careers at Lionel Sawyer, Bryan cited people including Kristin McMillan, now heading the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, attorney Steve Morris and Nevada Supreme Court Justice Kris Pickering.

For decades, Lionel Sawyer partner Harvey Whittemore was the state’s most powerful political lobbyist. Now he is in prison following his conviction of illegally funneling political donations to U.S Sen. Harry Reid. Bryan and others said Whittemore’s conviction embarrassed the firm but played no role in the breakup.

Lionel Sawyer isn’t the only Nevada firm to be absorbed: Many other local law firms have joined with large regional, national and even international firms starting in 2002. Mowbray said when he was president of the State Bar of Nevada in 2001 and 2002, a push was made to allow licensed out-of-state attorneys without Nevada licenses to handle five matters in three years.

That rule change made it possible for regional law firms to have a larger presence in Nevada on a limited basis. But these out-of-state firms also could hire Nevada lawyers and expand their presence here. Meanwhile, the familiar names of firms such as Beckley Singleton disappeared.

Before the dissolution, out of the 10 largest firms in Nevada, Lionel Sawyer tied for fourth place in number of attorneys in Nevada with 50 attorneys in both ends of the state. Fennemore Craig was in ninth place with 27 attorneys in Nevada but now has 46 with the new additions, making it a fifth-place tie with Gordon Silver in Nevada.

With the addition of the 19, Fennemore Craig proclaimed it has a “dominant presence” in Nevada.

Mowbray himself is an example of a partner in a small firm — Morse & Mowbray — who in 2006 went to work for Fennemore Craig, which now has 200 attorneys in Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Reno, and Nogales and Tucson, Ariz.

Not all Lionel Sawyer attorneys were asked to join Fennemore Craig, and four who were asked declined.

In Las Vegas, besides Lionel and Bryan, the others who moved to Fennemore Craig were Jeffrey Zucker, Lynn Fulstone, Kevin Hejmanowski, Christopher Mathews, Christopher Walther, Ketan Bhirud and Mark Gardberg.

Meanwhile, Lionel Sawyer’s managing partner Paul Hejmanowski and four others from the firm are starting their own firm, while his son went with Fennemore Craig.

Las Vegas attorney Richard Pocker moved from a local firm to the megafirm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner in 2005.

“It’s sad that what was Nevada’s premier law firm is gone,” Pocker said. “But Sam Lionel can be proud of what he built.”

Lionel, at 95, still goes to work every day, and by joining Fennemore Craig, he and the others from Lionel Sawyer will be able to serve their clients more effectively, Pocker said.

For their commercial clients in Nevada, this should be a positive.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Thursdays. Email her at jmorrison@reviewjournal.com or leave a message at 702-383-0275. Find her on Twitter @janeannmorrison.

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