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Brothers Blaine and Bryan Benard often talked about working at the same law firm.

"For many years, there's been a mutual invitation to each other to join each other's law firm, and this time we took it one step further," said Blaine Benard, who jumped ship from Holme Roberts and Owen in March to join his brother at Holland and Hart.

What began as a leisurely discussion between siblings eventually became a triumph for Holland Hart and a heartbreak for Holme Roberts, two large Denver firms with prestigious offices in Salt Lake City.

It also led to the biggest upheaval of its kind in more than a decade in the closely knit fraternity of attorneys who practice civil law in Utah.

Blaine Benard's reputation as a Holme partner and chairman of its litigation department was such that other lawyers in the firm couldn't fail to take notice of his leave-taking. He won't say explicitly why he departed, but internal differences over a strategy to focus Holme's growth on bigger markets may have been the spark. Last March, eight attorneys joined Benard in a short walk across Main Street to Holland and Hart's offices on the top floors of 222 South Main.

"There were nine of us who initially decided to move to Holland Hart with the thought that others might want to join us. And those who over the next month decided to join us included an additional seven partners," together with numerous other lawyers with extensive experience in litigation, natural resource and tax law, Benard said.

In all, 27 partners, associates and line attorneys — many had practiced together for years — left Holme to join Holland and Hart.

"It has been an amazing thing to happen as quickly as it did. It is a tremendous amount of growth," Greg Lindsey, administrative partner at Holland and Hart, said without elaborating.

The mass defection of lawyers — and their clients — was the biggest since 1999, when 24 lawyers left Van Cott Bagley Cornwall and McCarthy to join Stoel Rives. Holland and Hart's stable of Salt Lake City lawyers jumped to 80 from 51 (two lawyers arrived from other firms), while the number of lawyers at Holme dropped to six from 33.

Holme partner Thomas Rossa would only characterize the moves this way: "It means that a number of lawyers have left, and we will have to deal with replacing them."

It was an unlikely moment for so many departures. Like other businesses, the law profession suffered during the Great Recession. Many firms have limited hiring or laid off lawyers. Robert Jeffs, president of the Utah Bar Association, says the job market for attorneys today is the toughest since at least 1984, when he graduated from Brigham Young University's law school.

"For me as an outsider looking in, I can't imagine why a move like that would occur,"Jeffs said. On reflection, however, he believes significant changes in the economy could compel law firms to revisit their business plans.

The managing partner of Holme doesn't know why the lawyers left, though the departures took place around the time the firm was restructuring.

"We had a series of discussions with them. Their departure was not our idea or our choice," Randall Miller said.

The lawyers who left Holme appear to have the same standing at Holland and Hart. Sixteen are partners; eight are associates; three are "of counsel" lawyers, who are employed by the firm but aren't partners or associates. The group chose Blaine Benard to speak for them.

"We looked at where we were and how best to serve our clients," he said. "The first nine and the others who followed were impressed with the direction of Holland and Hart ... the largest law firm in the Rocky Mountain region. Its focus is on clients in this region and clients around the nation and world who have operations or dealings in this region."

Asked if the same opportunities were available at Holme, Benard said he had practiced law at the firm "a lot of years" but "looking at where things were today and looking into the future we thought our practices would be better suited at Holland and Hart than at Holme Roberts."

In a March statement, Holme managing partner Paul Smith said Holland and Hart's footprint in smaller markets was a better fit for the lawyers who left. Smith said his firm would focus its growth on larger-market expansions in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

Colleague Miller said the departures took place after Holme announced a restructuring of the firm in January. The reorganization included administrative staff cuts, new leadership and "best practices" changes that an outside consultant recommended to the firm.

"Going through this recession, best practices for law firms have changed," Miller said. "Some of that includes revisiting our goals. Our growth model is part of that. We are committed to not only the Rocky Mountains, but also to California.

"In fact, we have grown each of our California offices by 30 percent in the last 12 months."

Despite the pains associated with Holme's growth plan, the firm isn't pulling away from Salt Lake City, Miller said. In the past, the office focused on litigation and tax law. The new emphasis will be on natural resource and intellectual property law.

"It will be a different focus going forward," Miller said.

Twitter: @SLTribPaul —

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