Breaking tradition, attorneys increasingly switch firms


March 10, 1991|By Graeme Browning

In the years since he graduated from law school, James L. Lekin has practiced law at three of Baltimore's largest and most respected firms: Venable, Baetjer and Howard; Miles & Stockbridge; and Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

Two weeks ago Mr. Lekin left Whiteford to join the Baltimore office of a fourth well-regarded law firm, Washington's Patton, Boggs & Blow, for what is rumored to be a hefty increase in income.

Yet the quiet, 52-year-old lawyer shifts uncomfortably in his seat when asked why he has made so many moves. "You know," he responds with a defensive edge in his voice, "this sort of thing has been going on in corporate America for a long time."

Indeed it has. For decades, American managers, spurred by ambition and the desire for larger paychecks, have worked their way up the executive ladder by leaving one company for another when greater opportunity beckoned. Now, with financial pressures mounting, competition growing and the clubby atmosphere that was once the hallmark of elite law firms breaking down, lawyers are doing the same.

In years past few lawyers would have even considered the idea of abandoning one law firm for another in search of professional and financial gain.

Most held to "the tenet that you're loyal to a firm, that you stay there through thick and thin, almost the same way people treat marriage vows," said Anne Neal, a partner in Williamson & Neal Inc., a Washington-based legal recruiting firm.

Only with the 1980s boom in hostile takeovers and other highly lucrative legal business did lawyers' reluctance to switch law firms begin to break down in such cities as New York and Washington. Soon lawyers there began to move between top firms like star athletes between competing teams.

This past year the change appears finally to have come to Baltimore's conservative legal community as well.

Since June, at least 11 partners in major Baltimore law firms have defected to competing firms in the city. Five of those lawyers -- including Mr. Lekin and fellow Whiteford partners James R. Deveney II and Read K. McCaffrey -- have made the switch since mid-February.

Three days ago the law firm of Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander confirmed that George K. Reynolds III will leave the Towson office of Venable, Baetjer and Howard in March to become chairman of Gordon, Feinblatt's trusts and estates department.

Some of the moves were prompted by what lawyers say has been a dramatic shift away from the collegiality that once characterized prominent law firms and toward an increasing emphasis on efficiency, competitiveness and profit.

Baltimore lawyer Nathaniel E. Jones Jr. joined Miles & Stockbridge out of law school, for example, because of what he calls "the quality-of-life factor."

"You joined the firm and you knew you'd be there until you went to your grave. You didn't have to compete with other associates to keep your place, like other large firms required," he said.

Over the course of nine years, however, Mr. Jones grew increasingly dissatisfied with the way Miles & Stockbridge was handling several staffing and management issues. Last September he left the firm and became a partner at Venable, Baetjer and Howard.

Venable beefed up his staff of associates and supported his desire to market his services, Mr. Jones said.

Other factors are increasing dissatisfaction among local lawyers and prompting some to look for greener pastures. With the onset of the recession, for example, Baltimore law firms are shaving overhead to the bone and discounting fees for corporate clients that generate a steady workload.

Some firms also have brought in lawyers from outside or reorganized departments to beef up staffing in areas where work is still plentiful.

While such moves make sense from a fiscal standpoint, they have ruffled feathers of older lawyers who were used to a more traditional way of practicing law.

Frank, Bernstein, for example, recently combined 22 partners from its corporate, banking, real estate, tax, litigation and bankruptcy departments into a new bankruptcy and loan workout department. The change caused conflict, however, between the firm's management committee and Harvey M. Lebowitz, who had headed the bankruptcy department for many years. Eventually Mr. Lebowitz left the firm and joined Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

At the same time, lawyers' "billable hours," or hours of fee-generating work, are coming under increasing scrutiny from law firm management committees.

A decade ago, it was acceptable in most elite firms for a lawyer to record 1,800 billable hours per year, which works out to slightly less than 40 hours per week, plus a two-week vacation. Today a partner who bills 2,000 hours per year, or even 2,500 hours, is considered to be working at minimum level, lawyers say.

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