Bodman PLC became the second Detroit-based law firm to enter the Grand Rapids market in recent months with the opening of a new downtown office.
The law firm follows Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, which opened an office in Grand Rapids in late 2016 after recruiting veteran M&A attorney Tracey Larsen from Barnes & Thornburg LLP.
The move by both firms into Grand Rapids heightens competition in the market for both business and talent, said Nelson Miller, associate dean of the Grand Rapids campus of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School.
A low unemployment rate for attorneys in Michigan already makes for a tight legal labor market, Miller said. The addition of two more firms in the region that want to grow can only make it more competitive and opens up opportunity for practicing lawyers who may want to move to another firm, he said.
“It’s a good time to be a lawyer in Grand Rapids, and that will remain true as long as the economy keeps ticking along,” said Miller, who calls the entry of both firms into Grand Rapids “headline moves.”
“It’s a great labor market right now for lawyers,” he said. “Lawyers have liberty to move laterally to get into a better situation. Joining a new firm in the area and taking their client base may be a good move.”
Bodman, which focuses on business and corporate law through 10 practice groups, and Honigman each started their local offices after recruiting attorneys from other well-established firms in the market. Honigman lured Larsen from Barnes & Thornburg, while Bodman brought aboard corporate attorney Floyd Gates Jr., formerly of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC.
At Bodman, Gates is a member of the banking, business, and litigation and alternative dispute resolution practice groups. He was joined in the new office by Darren Burmania, a banking and business law attorney who also came from Miller Canfield in Grand Rapids.
Their moves were among the latest shuffling of personnel at law firms in Grand Rapids.
Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey PLC recently added three attorneys to its M&A practice group, including Erik Daly and Anne Marie Carson who joined the firm from Barnes & Thornburg’s Grand Rapids office.
Meanwhile, Barnes & Thornburg made a significant addition of its own: Patrick Miles, who served as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan in Grand Rapids and departed with the change in presidential administrations.
The movement of attorneys from one firm to another has become the norm since the 2008 financial crisis began shaking up large law firms nationally, said Michael McGee, CEO at Detroit-based Miller Canfield. Large law firms “have not fully recovered” from that period and are always recruiting lawyers and seeking markets to enter to attract new clients and grow, McGee said.
When firms enter a new market, they open opportunity for attorneys with established practices to move, he said. McGee likens it to baseball players becoming free agents and signing with a new team.
“They have a good season, they’re entitled to go out to the marketplace and see what they can do, and that’s just the new norm,” McGee said. “Law firms are looking, people are looking, and it’s a very liquid market.”
The departure from Miller Canfield of two attorneys who specialize in banking law doesn’t concern McGee because the firm has a large banking practice.
Miller Canfield has 10 lawyers practicing in its 34-year-old Grand Rapids office and wants to add more. The firm aims to more than double the number of attorneys at the Grand Rapids office this year by building core practice areas for the firm, including international business, real estate, utilities and finance.
“We’d like to be significantly bigger in Grand Rapids,” McGee said. “We’re really looking for more than just to refill a couple positions.”
At Bodman, the goal is to build the Grand Rapids location into a full-service law office with “25-plus” attorneys in a variety of disciplines, Chairman Ralph McDowell said. Recruiting attorneys who have an established practice in the market and can bring with them a book of business ranks among the firm’s strategies for building the office, he said.
“Right now, we’re certainly looking at areas of practice and deciding whether there are people we might want to reach out to and target,” he said. “We think we will get some calls as well.”
Bodman has more than 150 attorneys practicing at offices in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Troy, Cheboygan, and now Grand Rapids.
The firm also will look to staff the Grand Rapids office with lawyers who may want to move from its other offices and, in time, law school graduates seeking their first positions, McDowell said.
Bodman’s challenge in attracting corporate clients in Grand Rapids “may be more one of identity,” said WMU’s Miller. The firm’s history is tied closely to Southeast Michigan and clients such as Ford Motor Co., the Ford family and Comerica Inc., he said.
How well Bodman does here may likewise depend on whether it recruits local lawyers with a strong corporate-client base,” Miller said. “Those of us here in West Michigan can be pretty loyal to relationships. Bodman, like any other firm entering this market, may need to find ways to engage that loyalty.”
Bodman wanted to open a Grand Rapids office for several years and waited until it could find the right attorney, McDowell said. The opportunity came with Gates, with whom McDowell has worked on projects in the past.
McDowell calls the move into Grand Rapids “fairly natural for us.” Bodman also wants to expand its client base and legal expertise “in terms of tapping the lawyers and businesses in Grand Rapids,” he said.