The biggest law firm in the world can practice in Hawaii, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

That right had been challenged by local attorney Jim Bickerton in connection with a case in which he represented a mortgage borrower against a bank.

Bickerton contended Rules of the Hawaii Supreme Court prohibited the international law firm Dentons from operating in Hawaii because not all Dentons lawyers are licensed here. Dentons had established itself in Hawaii through a merger with Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing.

On Monday, the court ruled that Dentons can practice here.

Aliiolani Hale, the home of the Hawaii State Supreme Court. It is the former seat of government of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the Republic of Hawaii. 9.16.14
A statue of King Kamehameha in front of Aliiolani Hale, the home of the Hawaii Supreme Court. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014

“We always expected that the Court would recognize the value of having multijurisdictional firms woven into the fabric of our legal community,” Paul Alston, Hawaii managing partner for Dentons, said in a statement.

Bickerton said he had no objection to the ruling.

“This is a situation where a court is interpreting its own rule; it really can’t be wrong,” Bickerton said after the court released its unanimous opinion. “It’s entirely their prerogative.”

It was a decidedly conciliatory tone by Bickerton, who had taken a tough posture by challenging Dentons’ right to operate in Hawaii even though the firm had a big stable of lawyers licensed to practice in Honolulu.

In challenging Dentons’ right to practice in the islands, Bickerton cited court rules governing law firms. For example, one of the rules says “each director of a lawyers’ professional business organization shall be licensed to practice law in this state by this court.”

In Dentons’ case, the firm employs thousands of lawyers worldwide, including 900 in the U.S. and 3,500 in China.

Bickerton argued the rules meant only lawyers licensed to practice in Hawaii could own stock in or help direct the firm they worked for. Accordingly, he said, given its many partners not licensed in Hawaii, Dentons couldn’t practice here, and neither could former Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing lawyers, who are now part of Dentons.

Bickerton made his argument in response to a routine request in a case between Denton’s client, CIT Bank, and a mortgage borrower represented by Bickerton. Dentons’ lawyers wanted the court’s permission to bring in a California lawyer not licensed in Hawaii to help on the case, a routine move that rarely creates controversy. Not only did Bickerton oppose the request; he argued Dentons shouldn’t be allowed to operate at all.

At the time, Alston chalked the dispute up to rivalry between the lawyers.

Bickerton, meanwhile, called one of Dentons’ rebuttals a “dumb-ass argument.”

Rejecting Bickerton’s argument, the court said his interpretation of court rules might have been true when they were adopted. But the court said subsequent rules eliminated any requirement that only Hawaii-licensed lawyers could serve as partners in law firms operating here.

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