Law and Order in Las Vegas

Legions of Ivy League law grads are seeking their fortune in the playground of Sin City.

Sinatra is crooning “I’ve Got the World on a String“ on the speakers at Tinoco’s Bistro, an outré little joint a couple of dusty blocks off Las Vegas Boulevard’s grittier end. Craig Newby, a local lawyer with ruddy cheeks, sits hunched over a bowl of linguine with three guys from his practice. Although their firm handles some of the biggest corporate deals in town, just now they are lovingly recounting a penny-ante worker’s-compensation case that involved, as so many things in Las Vegas do, strippers and baby oil.

“If I recall right,“ says one of the firm’s partners, Andy Gordon, flashing a strobe-light grin, “she admitted to being hog-tied, suspended from the ceiling, and spanked with a wooden paddle.“ The table erupts with laughter loud enough to drown out the crescendos of Nelson Riddle’s horn section.

Newby and Gordon aren’t sharkskin-clad desert shysters with correspondence degrees—they are products of an outfit known as Harvard Law School. Newby, 31, never imagined while he was enduring three sleepless years on the shores of the Charles River that he’d be hanging his diploma in an office with a view of a musical fountain show and an abandoned strip club. In fact, he was barely out of the crimson sash when he snagged a six-figure offer to be a tiny cog in a prestigious lawyer machine in Chicago. He remembers thinking, “Do I want to spend the next 13 years of my life trying to get to the point where maybe I’d be a low-level partner, and at that point still be halfway up the totem pole?“

So Newby went searching for an oasis, and last year he found it in the sands of Vegas. Nevada has less than half as many attorneys per capita as Illinois —and less than a third as many as lawyer-saturated New York. More than 6,000 new residents stake their claim in Sin City each month, and new companies are springing up like crabgrass, lured by the state’s laid-back corporate-tax levies. (There’s no personal income tax, either.) And in 2002, Nevada dumped an old law that kept out-of-state law firms from setting up shop. All this amounts to unbeatable odds for young and ambitious legal minds.

“Literally, my first morning on the job I got dragged to court on a matter that had just returned from the United States Supreme Court,“ Newby says. “It’s as big and as badass a case as you could find anywhere.“ Such high-stakes litigation is a siren song for Ivy-fresh lawyers like Newby, although the neon-lit environs mean he gets his share of face-reddening cases. (Like the aforementioned stripper case.)

The growing supply of billable hours and big cases is not Vegas’ only allure. Attorneys who flee the major-league cities soon find the lifestyle they had in mind when they shelled out $100,000 for their diplomas. University of Pennsylvania Law School graduate Bart Verdirame, 33, left his post at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, one of Manhattan’s premier corporate-law firms, and now heads the legal department of a multi-million-dollar software company in Vegas. His reward for escaping the hive was a sprawling new five-bedroom house.

“I have friends in New York making a hell of a lot more than I’m making,“ Verdirame says, swirling a Johnnie Walker Black at the noisy perestroika-chic Red Square lounge in Mandalay Bay. “But I have a nice house with a pool, a Jacuzzi, and a view of the Strip. It was a great move for me.“

Besides the advantages of the lifestyle, moving to Vegas has opened the eyes of some attorneys to more modern ways of making a buck. Chris Handy, a sleek-dressing 33-year-old Harvard Law graduate, arrived in Vegas two years ago and is quickly learning the local ethos. “Lawyers are stereotypically bad businesspeople,“ Handy says. “You can have somebody doing a $400 million merger and getting paid only $250,000.“ So Handy and his friends Perry Rogers and Todd Wilson formed PRISM (Premier Integrated Sports Management), a small Vegas triumvirate that represents Shaquille O’Neal, Andre Agassi, and two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves—and negotiates their endorsement deals, some of which can reach eight figures.

Handy cautions that Vegas still carries echoes of its self-regulated past—days when your word was everything and broken promises meant broken kneecaps. “There’ve been some people I’ve worked with on the East Coast who would be run out of this town in about a day,“ he says.

Anthony Pearl, 34, associate general counsel for Harrah’s Entertainment, learned about desert diplomacy when his company bought Binion’s Horseshoe, a landmark casino with a legendarily checkered past. “There is a collision between the Old Vegas relationships and the new, spiffy Wall Street lawyers,“ says Pearl, yet another recent Harvard grad. Shortly after joining Harrah’s, Pearl found himself in a velvet-walled steak house, trying to convince martini-sipping members of the Old Guard that his army of pin-striped prospectors wouldn’t rob the casino of its soul. “I was naïve to think that you just get in a big conference room, negotiate the business terms of the deal, and hammer it out,“ he says.

Like the rest of this new wave of legal frontiersmen in the desert, Pearl doesn’t mind learning the atavistic ways. At home, he lives in a hilltop house with marble bathrooms and practices his putts on a private green. At the office, he works at a desk in front of a glossy aerial blowup of Las Vegas. To Pearl, the Strip from this vantage looks like a chess set—with $7 billion worth (and counting) of pieces on his side of the board. As he traces his fingers over the rooftops of Harrah’s and the Rio, a grin stretches across his face. “I love the view from this angle,“ he says.

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