Attorneys: The marriage of Jones Vargas and Fennemore Craig

Bruce Spotleson

Bruce Spotleson

It wasn’t anything directly related to torts or writs that convinced the law firm of Jones Vargas it was time to form an alliance. It was the writing on the wall.

One of Nevada’s best-known firms, Jones Vargas announced July 5 that it is joining Fennemore Craig, an Arizona-based firm with a legacy of its own.

Numerous local firms have formed such alliances in the past decade, of course. But this time it was Jones Vargas, a venerated law firm that dates back to 1938.

For years now, Joseph W. (Joe) Brown has served as both its president and public face, in addition to being a member of the Nevada Gaming Commission and a force in the state’s Republican Party. He saw what was happening as other firms merged, enabling them to bring in specialized talent as needed.

“We’d been thinking about a merger,” Brown said. The firm had taken a similar step in 1997 when it teamed up with Vargas & Bartlett of Reno — the late state Sen. Bill Raggio’s firm — thus creating Jones Vargas.

“So many other firms had done marriages with firms that offered more services to the client,” Brown observed. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t lose any clients because we couldn’t fully service them.”

It’s an arranged marriage, but one in which the partners seem well suited.

“They’re the oldest firm in Arizona, and we’re the oldest in Nevada,” Brown said. “There are a lot of commonalities in our practices. And they brought some great things to our firm — like IP (intellectual property) and mining. And they have a taxation department, which we did not have, and they have more capabilities in securities.”

James Wadhams is a former Nevada Commissioner of Insurance and director of the state’s Department of Commerce, another example of the depth at Jones Vargas. He envisions a relatively smooth transition for clients.

“It really is a function of the lawyers we have and the practice areas, rather than the name on the letterhead,” he said.

Wadhams, who has practiced in Nevada since 1975, recognizes a new era.

“Our economy has become regional, and so our law firms have had to become regional,” he said. “Keeping all these different levels of expertise in one firm at one location — it’s pretty difficult. So I think regionalization is a good thing.”

I called Fennemore Craig managing partner Tim Berg, whose firm had apparently been contemplating growth for a while now.

“Our plan is to become a leading law firm in the region,” he said.

The first phase here was to acquire the firm of Morse & Mowbray, whose team formed the nucleus of the Fennemore Craig office that opened locally in 2006. The firm saw opportunity in a lot of other Western cities but decided to begin an expansion closer to its Arizona home.

“One of the things we started thinking about was that we needed to be bigger in Las Vegas,” Berg said. “And we needed to start thinking about Reno. So we started to talk to Jones Vargas. They had a good culture and some practices we didn’t have.”

“The advantage was that you were getting a group of people who liked practicing with each other, got along, worked with all their clients together. In some ways, that’s easier than hiring one or two people at a time. So for us, it was kind of a logical step in the plan we have to grow.”

The new firm, with 36 lawyers statewide, will be known in Nevada as Fennemore Craig Jones Vargas. In addition to Las Vegas, Reno and Phoenix, it has offices in Tucson, Nogales and Denver, and almost 200 attorneys in all.

The expansion is also a vote of confidence in our local economy.

“It’s one of the reasons we did what we did,” Berg said. “Our view always has been that the downturn was a temporary condition.”

Key people at the two firms are familiar with each other. Brown has known Fennemore Craig attorney John H. Mowbray, for example, since 1968, having served as a law clerk for his late father, the highly respected Justice John C. Mowbray.

“Everything just seemed like a perfect marriage,” Brown said. “It’s almost like coming to work in the same place.”

Literally, perhaps, since the offices have been consolidated into the previous Fennemore Craig space in the Bank of America building downtown. When the building opened in 1975, Jones Vargas was one of its first tenants.