Law firm steeped in Nevada gaming history relegated to history pages

12 January 2015

LAS VEGAS -- Back when Nevada and Atlantic City were the only places in the United States to find casinos, the law firm Lionel Sawyer & Collins ruled the legal roost.

With the New Year’s Day addition of nearly 20 of the firm’s attorneys into the Fennemore Craig law firm, Lionel Sawyer & Collins has been relegated to the gaming industry history pages, joining the names Frontier, Dunes, Stardust, Aladdin and El Rancho Vegas.

The firm represented owners who operated those departed Strip resorts.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston, author of “Temples of Chance,” the 1992 book on the corporate takeover of the casino industry, described the law firm as the most powerful legal house in Nevada. He wrote that the firm’s client list could have been a reprint of the Las Vegas-area Yellow Pages under the listing for casinos.

“It was the go-to firm for gaming,” said attorney Anthony Cabot, who spent 23 years at Lionel Sawyer & Collins.

A few lawyers outside Lionel Sawyer handled gaming clients, notably Frank Schreck and Jeffrey Silver, who were state gaming regulators before branching off into private practice.

Lionel Sawyer, however, was gaming’s most-recognized legal name.

Former Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer credited Paul Laxalt — the person who bounced him from the governor’s office in the 1966 election — with indirectly helping expand the firm’s business.

Sawyer, who founded the firm in 1967 with attorney Sam Lionel, wrote in his 1993 history, “Hang Tough!,” that Laxalt insisted corporate gaming operations be licensed in Nevada. The 1969 order benefited the new law firm.

“As a consequence most of the resort hotel-casinos in Las Vegas were bought out by corporations, nearly all of whom came to me to take care of their licensing,” wrote Sawyer, who as governor, instituted the state’s gaming regulatory structure.

After handling the licensing, the firm continued to represent the new casino owners in legal matters outside of gaming. Sawyer wrote that the corporate gaming law provided the attorneys with a “tremendous” source of business.

“Over three or four years, I picked up most of the licensing of new corporate ownerships in Las Vegas,” Sawyer wrote. “Why so many chose our firm to represent them remains a mystery to me.”

Cabot said there was no mystery. Sawyer, who died in 1996, was the drawing card for casino owners.

“Grant was an unique individual,” said Cabot, who heads Lewis Roca Rothgerber’s gaming law practice. “He was an extremely powerful person, but he was able to combine that with humility and respect for people.”

Cabot worked closely with Sawyer and the late Bob Faiss, Sawyer’s chief aide in the governor’s office, who joined the firm in the early 1970s. Faiss, who died last year, became the gaming industry’s most respected legal adviser.

Sawyer was in the initial group of inductees when the Gaming Hall of Fame was created in 1989. Faiss joined him posthumously last September.

Lionel Sawyer was at the forefront of many major gaming changes in Nevada.

The firm represented Del Webb Corp., Hilton Hotels Corporation, MGM Resorts International and Summa Corp., the company that operated the casinos owned by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. It represented gaming luminaries such as billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.

In the last decade, the firm’s attorneys steered the licensing for Europe-based Internet gaming businesses and Dubai World, the investment arm of the Persian Gulf emirate. The firm also helped achieve gaming license suitability for Hong Kong businesswoman Pansy Ho and Malaysia-based Genting Malaysia Berhad.

Cabot and the firm’s gaming attorneys published several additions to “Nevada Gaming Law,” a guide to the state’s regulatory structure.

But as gaming exploded across the U.S., starting in the 1990s, Lionel Sawyer began to show cracks. It’s gaming practice remained too concentrated on Nevada.

Other law houses saw a lucrative business opportunity as gaming arrived in their home states. Many firms with headquarters in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Denver set up branches in Las Vegas.

Schreck merged his firm with Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber. Other Nevada legal firms joined with larger, out-of-state legal houses. Beckley Singleton became part of Lewis and Roca LLP. Jones Vargas merged with Fennemore Craig. Quirk & Tratos combined with Greenberg Traurig LLP.

“To get a good foothold in Nevada, you had to have a gaming attorney,” Cabot said. “It gave firms a presence.”

Meanwhile, Lionel Sawyer stood pat.

Cabot, 59, left Lionel Sawyer 10 years ago to help establish Lewis Roca Rothgerber’s gaming law practice. That group has 14 gaming attorneys in three states.

Over the years, other Lionel Sawyer gaming attorneys left to become gaming industry in-house general counsels.

Cabot said he agonized for six months before deciding to depart the firm.

Last year marked the biggest change in Lionel Sawyer’s gaming practice.

Ellen Whittemore departed in the spring to form a practice, taking with her MGM Resorts. Mark Clayton joined Greenberg Traurig in August, bringing along online gaming giant 888 Holdings Plc, Genting Berhad and sports book operator CG Technology. Jennifer Roberts became a partner at Duane Morris LLP in October.

By December, it was clear Lionel Sawyer was finished.

But the firm’s place in Nevada gaming history will live on.

Lionel, at 95, continues to practice law and joined Fennemore Craig.

In “Hang Tough!,” Sawyer wrote that he and his law partner were “different people,” but they had a good personal relationship.

“We have come a long way from our modest beginnings,” Sawyer wrote in 1993. “I never dreamed that things would go this well, and I couldn’t have asked for a better association that the one I have had with our members all these years, particularly Sam Lionel.”

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