Big law has arrived in Utah. What does this mean for local law firms?
Jon Van Gorp, chair of Mayer Brown, speaking to a crowd at the firm’s Salt Lake City office. | Photo courtesy of Mayer Brown
Even in the years before the pandemic, national law firms were already eyeing Utah. The reasons were clearer with each year that passed: the combination of a growing tech economy, quality of life options and strong law schools made the state an increasingly attractive place to open up an office.
“In the past 10 years, a lot of things have changed in Salt Lake City,” says Jon Van Gorp, the chair of international law firm Mayer Brown, which opened a Salt Lake City office in early 2022. “It was moving from kind of a local, regional market to an international market. I saw an idea of where we could be.”
City clients, mountain living
Mayer Brown’s choice was indicative of a larger pattern. In the past few years, several national firms have opened offices in Utah, including the internationally-focused Kirkland & Ellis. According to attorneys in the city, the shift also has to do with changing work practices post-pandemic that make it easier for remote collaboration.
For some of these firms, recruitment efforts improved if they could offer the comfort and lifestyle of Salt Lake City while still maintaining their clients in markets like New York City and Los Angeles.
Jonathan Hafen, a shareholder and commercial litigation lawyer with Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, says the changes have largely helped the legal community in Salt Lake instead of adding competition. Parr Brown has been a Utah fixture since the 1970s, and Hafen has been practicing in the state since 1989.
“What it means is we have really talented lawyers and top law students that want to come and live in Utah,” Hafen says, explaining that Phoenix and Denver experienced similar growth in their legal communities. “What I’m not seeing here is a bunch of firms trying to divide the pie. What I’m seeing is an expansion of the pie.”
To Hafen, this means more top-tier opportunities for Utah-based law students and attorneys who want to prioritize the quality of life and outdoor culture that the state has to offer. He also believes it will help the economy grow further.
“I believe that the entry into our market of prestigious national firms is a wonderful sign for Utah’s business community as well as its legal community,” Hafen says.
Part of this culture shift is that the legal community has become more remote, according to Hafen. Lawyers and judges learned a lot during the pandemic, he says, making them more open to remote work for previously strict processes. Court hearings and depositions have become remote, for example.
“The benefit for our courts and our clients have been tremendous,” Hafen says. Previously, clients may have needed to travel to another city at major expense for something like a deposition. Now, travel and billable hours can be reduced by doing video calls, and attorneys can be in another city that’s more comfortable for them.
“It’s a couple of hours of time as opposed to three days,” Hafen says. “That means lower legal fees for the clients and a better lifestyle, frankly, for the lawyers.”
"We are incredibly busy. I don’t know that we’ve ever been this busy, and that’s after these firms have entered our market. There is so much to do here. We still have a very robust demand for legal services. … Utah-based companies no longer need to look to the coast to get their work done."
Dipping into Utah’s existing talent pool
Travis Nelson and Jess Krannich, both partners at the large international firm Kirkland & Ellis, say the new office was largely about providing a space that would be attractive for staff that wanted to work and live in smaller markets.
“The idea of Salt Lake was that we have a lot of really amazing people, plus two really amazing law schools that can help with those kinds of deals,” Nelson says, adding that the state’s growing tech and business market will make the move beneficial in the years to come.
“It’s kind of been a very well-kept secret,” Krannich says of Utah’s appeal. “Our focus has been on the extraordinary talent that exists in the community … [if] you build the right group of people, everything else kind of takes care of itself.”
Instead of trying to scrape together something from scratch, the team at Kirkland & Ellis saw a high level of legal talent already located in the Salt Lake area. The idea was that opening an office could help recruit that group of people, Krannich says.
Filling high-end office space
The impact has already been felt in markets outside of just law. In real estate, for example, the addition of major law firms has meant that some of the nicest properties in downtown Salt Lake City are being rented out for long contracts.
“Everyone wants to be in the nicest building, typically in the downtown area,” says Nadia Letey, SVP of CBRE. “They all want to be in Class A, they all want to be in the nicest spaces … they use it in their recruitment.”
Letey’s real estate team helped both Kirkland & Ellis and Foley & Lardner establish offices and expand leases in the past few years. She says the commitments started slowly before firms went all in and expanded their connections to Utah.
“We’ve seen some law firms come in and look for some sublease space where they can test the market,” Letey says. “Since then, a lot of them have looked to do long-term commitments and are expanding.”
Letey notes that the real estate market might get tight downtown, with prestige firms renting out the relatively few high-end spaces faster than construction and development can keep pace. But at the same time, she says, it has helped the economy in the city’s prime locations.
“It’s absolutely helping the downtown area from a retail perspective—restaurants, hotels,” she says.
Benefiting the Salt Lake area
Van Gorp of Mayer Brown says he hopes his firm can offer something unique beyond just creating a hub for lawyers working with coastal clients. Connection to the community is a big enough priority that he instilled projects from the beginning that would strengthen ties with other lawyers and Salt Lake City residents, he says.
“We believe in sustainability, we believe in social responsibility, we believe in a place that is not just going to be known for our legal work,” Van Gorp says, pointing out that the firm has partnered regularly with the nonprofit The Road Home, which aims to assist the unhoused population. “When I opened in Salt Lake, I really wanted to set the tone immediately,” he continues.
For example, in 2022, Mayer Brown organized a bowling league for attorneys in the area, and all the money raised went to The Road Home. Van Gorp, who spent time in the city growing up, says this is part of an effort to make a long-term commitment.
“It’s a growing, very dynamic place with lots of businesses coming in that I don’t remember from when I was a kid,” he says. “We’re still in a people business, and it’s still important for us to be identifying as local Salt Lake lawyers.”
For Hafen, not only has the increased presence of national firms not taken work away from Utah lawyers, it’s actually come at a time when there has been an increased need.
“We are incredibly busy. I don’t know that we’ve ever been this busy, and that’s after these firms have entered our market,” he says. “There is so much to do here. We still have a very robust demand for legal services. … Utah-based companies no longer need to look to the coast to get their work done.”