California Powerhouse: Nossaman LLP

07.23.2014
Law360

Nossaman was profiled as one of only 20 firms named by Law360 to its inaugural list of "California Powerhouses."  Nossaman was included among the firms who "have stood out for their sizable presence in the Golden State and their significant regional accomplishments over the last two years." 

Nossaman's full profile can be found below.

 



Longtime employees of Nossaman LLP's San Francisco office can remember when former state lawmaker John T. Knox — or Jack, as everyone calls him — first began roaming the halls of the firm that would, for a time, carry his name.

Knox, who spent two decades in the California State Legislature before being persuaded to work for Nossaman, authored the Knox-Keene Act, which set regulations for prepaid health care plans, the California Environmental Quality Act and the Corporate Securities Act of 1968, among others. The firm was once known as Nossaman Guthner Knox & Elliott LLP, though it has since rebranded to be known simply as Nossaman.

That lasting lawmaking impact and Knox's passion for it helped anchor a public service mentality at the firm that echoes today in much of its work, which landed it on Law360's list of California Powerhouses.

"We really enjoy working with the public agencies," managing partner George Joseph said. "It gives us an opportunity to do important work that has a real impact on our communities and on the state.

"As a lawyer, it's really nice and refreshing to be able to do something that will have an impact on society," he said.

From his office window in Orange County, Joseph says, he can gaze out at the toll road his law firm helped make happen back in those early days of its public agency focus.

In the late 1970s, the story goes, the Southern California county's population was swelling, triggering a need for more roads to manage the residents' travel needs and the new business coming in.

By 1981, three corridors had been devised for new roads, but funding was scarce, particularly because people were paying less for gas with their new fuel-efficient cars, which meant the government took in less from taxes on fuel.

Nossaman helped create public joint-powers agencies to run the roads' financing, construction and maintenance, a structure that, together with the tolls, ultimately netted the road project the funding it needed to move forward.

That step was an important one for Orange County, but also for the firm, its attorneys say. From then on, they were at the forefront of infrastructure financing all over the nation.

The original work Nossaman did in striking a funding deal that spread out risk to stakeholders ended up becoming a model for how public agencies — states, cities, universities, utilities — would fund projects going forward, says Patrick Harder, head of the firm's infrastructure group.

"It's these kinds of things in California that spread throughout the country," Harder said. "All these things feed off each other and put us in the mix on a variety of these projects."

For example, he said, the firm is engaged in work with the University of California, Merced, which is trying to expand the campus's facilities to accommodate a potential doubling in its population.

The work, which Harder calls "social infrastructure," involves not only buying more land but also basically building the accommodations for an entire life on the university's campus — It includes more classrooms, bigger labs, more dormitories and more facilities, he said.

Nossaman's infrastructure group mostly deals in what Harder calls risk transfer mechanisms, the joint ventures and partnerships that allow the private sector to step in with funds for a public project in exchange for a more senior position in the project's value.

It's an innovative financing platform that, ideally, gets a project inked in a single contract, he said.

Being on the cutting edge means also being involved in the way laws that can impact the projects' financing activities are written, Harder noted.

"We're always in the discussion on the policy side," he said.

That seat at the table benefits clients across the firm's practice groups, said Mary Powers Antoine, who chairs Nossaman's health care practice group.

"We represent our clients in front of all of the regulators, in front of the Legislature and in litigation," Antoine said. "We have the ability to provide our clients with not just counsel and advice, but, if we didn't write the laws — and many of them we did — we have access to the people who are writing them."

Her work in California health care law, for example, is heavily influenced by Jack Knox's namesake act.

"We have represented health plans ever since the Knox-Keene Act was written and we still regularly lobby the Legislature when amendments are needed or proposed," Antoine said.

Antoine has been working with clients for the past few years on complying with the Affordable Care Act and helping them fit into the requirements of California's health benefits exchange, two legislative turning points that have turned into a great deal of work for some health care plans.

"They're trying to figure out how to position themselves to take care of the business opportunities and challenges of California's uniquely designed exchange," Antoine said.

She noted that, though the California exchange has much more support at home than the federal one, which has been the subject of "horror stories" on the news, "it has its own unique set of challenges."

And the health care rules are constantly changing, making things even harder for some clients, she said.

"What has been the most challenging is just navigating a system that seems to be constructed on quicksand. You can hardly keep up with the changes coming out of Washington and Sacramento at the same time," she said.

That's where Nossaman's public policy ties come in handy.

"We have this continuity across the decades and across the offices so that, for example, when our Southern California clients need help with Knox-Keene issues we're right here in Sacramento to help them," Antoine said.

That additional help from attorneys connected to the people who write laws is an important part of the firm's tradition, and it has been ever since managing partner Joseph started at Nossaman in the early 1980s.

"It's not only a question of being able to have some influence upon what's happening in the Legislature, but it also gives our clients a heads up on what's heading down the pipe," Joseph said. "It's more than simply the crisis management. It's being able to strategize with them about what we see coming in the future."

But shaking hands with the right people in Sacramento and Washington isn't the only force giving the firm its power, its attorneys say. Nossaman has been like a home to its lawyers, often for their entire legal careers, they say.

Yuliya Oryol started as a junior associate at the firm in 1999, but then her husband was called to South Korea with his work for a higher-up at Samsung, she said. She told her bosses she was leaving, but they persuaded her not to give up her career at the firm.

Instead, they had her stay on as of counsel, paying her bar dues and inviting her to the firm retreats, and referring clients back and forth for the four years she was in Korea, she said.

When she came back, they took her back in and counted those four years toward her partnership track.

"It's that kind of thing that keeps people at the firm. The loyalty they have for their employees, and then the employees have that loyalty back," Oryol said. "I felt like I had this room to grow up, to mature as a person or an attorney."

Part of maturing, for Oryol, has meant shifting her practice from the Asia-focused clients she picked up during her time abroad to working with pension plans, a relatively new field when she persuaded the partners to let her take it on.

Oryol joined Nossaman as a real estate and corporate lawyer, but realized, as public pension plans began to diversify their investments away from staid bonds, her background could be of use to them.

She now represents the three biggest pension plans in Los Angeles, including the retirement fund that supports police and fire employees, as well as the city of San Francisco, she said.

"It's sophisticated work that needs to get done. Public pension funds have huge liabilities and they need to diversify," she said.

Plus, it feels good to work for that client base, she said. In the long run, her work results in those pension funds being able to fully pay out the retirement money public workers rely on.

"I feel like I'm on the right side of that transaction," Oryol said. "We never represent the money manager. Some firms do both, but that creates a lot of conflicts."

For Oryol, doing transactional work also means she doesn't have to be at work at set times during the day. She does some work late at night or catches up during lulls on the weekends, which buys her precious time in the afternoons and early evenings when her daughters get home from school.

That's exactly the environment Joseph says the firm wants to perpetuate. He has been at the firm since he was an associate in 1982 and says that's typical of employees of Nossaman: The firm takes care of its lawyers.

"We all get to practice at a very high level, and yet we're not practicing at such a pace that we can't have lives outside the firm," he said. "We need to recognize that it is important for people to have families and still practice law."

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