A sign of the times: Area lawyers are polishing their bankruptcy skills Increase in business failures means cross-training within firms @

November 24, 1991|By Blair S. Walker

Lots of new faces are popping up in bankruptcy court these days.

They belong to attorneys like Steven L. Fedder, a Weinberg and Green litigator who's occasionally pulled into the creditors' rights department to help attack an avalanche of bankruptcy filings.

Mr. Fedder's situation isn't unique. Other Baltimore law firms are asking non-bankruptcy attorneys to help with business workouts, restructurings and liquidations, typically the domain of creditors' rights attorneys. One measure of the change: The Maryland Bankruptcy Bar had 193 members at the end of 1990, and 35 more by mid-November.

"We've been asking lawyers in a number of departments to get very heavily involved with bankruptcy and workout work," said Shale D. Stiller, managing partner of Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman.

"Both in banking law and in real estate law -- and to a certain extent mergers and acquisitions, where the volume of work is not as heavy as it once was -- these lawyers are eager to learn other skills," he said. "And bankruptcy is one of the skills that they are learning."

As of mid-October, more than 11,500 bankruptcy filings had occurred in Maryland, compared with 10,311 for all of 1990. Last year's total represented a jump of nearly 2,000 filings over 1989, according to the U.S. bankruptcy court statistics.

The resulting push for bankruptcy cross-training is a marked departure from the approach firms took when bankruptcies first began to increase, according to Anne C. Neal, a legal recruiter. Instead of using non-bankruptcy lawyers already in the firm, there was a helter-skelter -- to snap up outside attorneys who already had bankruptcy experience, she said.

"It's not the warm-body mentality that there was kind of a year ago, where anybody who knew how to spell the word bankruptcy could be a bankruptcy attorney," said Ms. Neal, a partner with the legal recruiting firm of Williamson & Neal.

A fair amount of law firm raiding took place in 1990 and earlier this year, when several major players with bankruptcy experience bade adieu to their firms and embraced new ones. Richard M. Kremen and David S. Musgrave left Semmes, Bowen & Semmes for Piper & Marbury. Frank, Bernstein lost former Bankruptcy Judge Harvey M. Lebowitz to Whiteford, Taylor and Preston, and Irving E. Walker to Miles & Stockbridge.

Such raiding has receded, Ms. Neal said. "Now, I would say that bankruptcy attorneys aren't in any more of a demand than

litigation attorneys, corporate attorneys or real estate attorneys were before the recession."

That may hold true for legal recruiters, but not inside law firms, where warm bodies are still snatched on a regular basis and pointed toward the creditors' rights department.

"I have been working more and more closely with the bankruptcy group, as have other litigators -- and for that matter other departments, particularly real estate and corporate," said Mr. Fedder, a civil litigator who said his practice has remained

robust.

He has noticed a difference between trying his usual cases and those in bankruptcy court. "The nature of the proceedings in bankruptcy court tend to be much shorter," he said. "The main interest of bankruptcy law is protecting unsecured creditors. In normal litigation, there is no predisposition of the judges to protect one side or the other."

Texas and Oklahoma have yielded a mother lode of experienced bankruptcy lawyers, said Lawrence D. Coppel, who heads the bank and creditors' rights practice at Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander.

"When I was looking for a five-year attorney in the early spring, I could not find one from this area who could satisfy my needs," Mr. Coppel said. "We interviewed a number of attorneys from Texas and Oklahoma. Those areas have been through their downturns and the bankruptcy work there has decreased."

However, the cachet of attorneys from Texas and Oklahoma is beginning to wear thin, said J. Martin Klein, a bankruptcy lawyer who came to Gordon, Feinblatt from Texas eight months ago. Inside many Baltimore-area firms, the "need to hire new bankruptcy personnel has been met by retraining business, banking and real estate lawyers to become bankruptcy attorneys," Mr. Klein said.

Mr. Coppel said Gordon, Feinblatt has beefed up its bankruptcy area from three attorneys a year ago to seven now and frequently uses attorneys who usually specialize in real estate, corporate and tax law.

"Everybody wants to be a bankruptcy lawyer now -- it's the glamour profession of the '90s," said Joel I. Sher, a longtime bankruptcy attorney with Shapiro and Olander. Lately, he's been grinding out 12- to 14-hour days, six days a week.

"Everybody wants to do it, but you can tell the guys who are really doing it -- they're walking about town with bags under their eyes," Mr. Sher said with a weary laugh.

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