By FRED HORLBECK, Senior Staff Writer
Two weeks after North Carolina giant Womble Carlyle announced its acquisition of a Charleston, S.C., firm, the regional law firm of Smith Moore Leatherwood also has opened an office in the port city.
“Charleston is becoming a very vibrant business market,” Marcus said. “We’ve been excited to see Charleston grow and we wanted to be part of that growth.”
With seven offices in the Carolinas and Georgia, Smith Moore Leatherwood has more than 170 lawyers, including 62 in Greensboro, 30 in Raleigh, 15 in Charlotte and seven in Wilmington as of Jan. 1, according to Lawyers Weekly’s Big 25 survey. The firm’s main practice areas are corporate law, commercial real estate, health care, litigation, and labor and employment.
The new office, which was set to open its doors April 27, will have four lawyers, all from Charleston.
Heading the office as partners in charge will be H. Michael Bowers, formerly a partner in the Charleston-based firm of Wilkes Bowers, and Robert W. Pearce, a former chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, who has devoted much of his career to economic development.
With them will be Laura Johnson Evans, also a Wilkes Bowers veteran, and Neil D. Thomson, formerly of the Charleston office of Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd.
“We looked for folks who would complement the types of practices that we have,” Marcus said. “Our approach traditionally has been to look for top talent and growing offices over time.”
In some ways, the move reflects the same thinking that led Womble Carlyle to acquire the longtime local firm of Buist Moore Smythe McGee.
For example, both firms cited the advent of aircraft manufacturing giant Boeing, which is set to open an assembly line for its new 787 Dreamliner passenger jets in North Charleston this summer.
The SML lawyers also pointed to port expansion and Clemson University’s wind turbine project at the former Charleston Naval Base as likely catalysts for business.
“I’m sure Womble probably did the same type of analysis that we did and concluded that Charleston was going to be an area that was going to see significant growth and, along with that, an increased demand for legal services,” Marcus said.
Otherwise, the SML lawyers sought to distinguish their firm from Womble and its 500-plus attorneys, with Pearce calling Womble a “megafirm.”
“We offer a very, very clear alternative to the megafirm structure for clients and for attorneys,” said Pearce, who described SML as a “southern regional firm with national and international capabilities.”
The firm also expects its Charleston contingent in part to boost its transportation and health-care practices, Marcus said.
For example, Evans is a former in-house counsel for Roper Saint Francis Healthcare and has litigated health care, toxic tort, product liability, commercial and first-party insurance cases. Bowers has centered his practice on defending complex cases in the areas of products liability, toxic tort, business litigation, trucking and transportation and insurance law.
Thomson, a graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law, focuses his litigation practice on professional liability, insurance defense, premises liability and commercial contract disputes.