Semmes to lay off 10 to 15 lawyers Notice comes a day after defection of 9

September 17, 1992|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

The Baltimore law firm of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes plans -- possibly as soon as next week -- to lay off 10 to 15 of its 74 associates in response to slower business.

The disclosure by Semmes Chairman Geoffrey S. Mitchell comes a day after nine Semmes labor and employment law attorneys left the firm to join rival Miles & Stockbridge, which continued its efforts to beef up its labor practice.

"The firm has had in the mill a couple of months the plan to review associates to determine whether a restructuring should be taken," Mr. Mitchell said. "We, in fact, are planning to act on a restructuring, perhaps within a week.

"It would entail the identification of 10 or 15, perhaps a few more, associates we have determined we will be unable to keep on hand."

He said the firm would try to help the attorneys on "the list" find new jobs. "These are very good lawyers who as a result of business conditions are going to find themselves on that list," he said.

Mr. Mitchell, calling the downsizing "prudent cost-cutting," said the firm would not fire partners or abandon practice areas as part of the restructuring.

He also said the move does not mean the firm was in danger of collapsing in the fashion of Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman, which closed in June.

"No one client is more than 4 percent of the firm's revenues," Mr. Mitchell said. He said Semmes was not concentrated in any one practice area, a contrast to the heavy focus on real estate that has been blamed for Frank, Bernstein's demise.

"The firm is profitable," Mr. Mitchell said. "I'd be less than candid if I didn't tell you business is a little below last year. . . . Business in Maryland is not as good as it used to be, but we're not down the tubes. This is a very resilient economy."

Mr. Mitchell also said the firm was renegotiating its lease at 250 W. Pratt St., where the amount of space it leases has become too large as the number of Semmes' attorneys has been reduced through earlier defections in litigation and other fields.

The lease, negotiated near the height of the late-1980s bull market for office space, also carries a rent well above current market rates, Mr. Mitchell said. "All of those things are on the table for discussion," he said.

Mr. Mitchell said Semmes was not seeking a merger with another firm as a way of strengthening itself.

"History has proven that mega-mergers in this profession frequently don't work and don't solve problems that firms have," he said. "We are involved in working our way through a down economy."

He said the firm would still make offers to three young attorneys who recently completed summer associateships at the firm, and said he expects Semmes to look for more labor lawyers to replace the attorneys who left.

The defecting labor lawyers were led by 60-year-old partner James Garland, a 36-year veteran of Semmes. Mr. Garland said yesterday that layoffs at Semmes had been under consideration for some time, but that the pending layoffs and the defections were not related.

"It had nothing to do with us," Mr. Garland said. "It was the general economy, just as other firms said there were going to be layoffs."

Mr. Garland likened the nine lawyers' decision to leave Semmes to the end of a marriage, when one partner can't say specifically what was wrong "but he or she knows it isn't working for them any more.

"We felt as a unit that we could do our thing much better at Miles than at Semmes," said Mr. Garland, who until Tuesday was chairman of Semmes' employment and labor law department. "Miles plans for expansion in the labor and employment area."

The defection of the nine labor and employment law attorneys from Semmes was reported in yesterday's Daily Record.

Miles & Stockbridge Managing Partner James R. Eyler said the firm had already added two labor lawyers.

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