Firm limits profit perk to top ranks Some at Venable will get salary only

October 29, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Baltimore's largest law firm is planning to drop some of its 135 profit-sharing lawyers to lower-rung salaried employees, its top official said yesterday.

Benjamin R. Civiletti, managing partner of the firm, Venable, Baetjer & Howard, said the move would encourage the firm's lawyers to concentrate in specific areas of the law and make the firm more versatile. Lawyers would fill designated roles rather than worry about attracting clients.

The move is also expected to consolidate power among the top-earning attorneys in the firm.

Mr. Civiletti predicted that some profit-sharing partners, or equity partners, would be willing to exchange profits in the firm's success for guaranteed salaries. Eventually, he said, about half the firm's partners could have non-equity status.

"I don't know how many," Mr. Civiletti said. The firm might have to limit the number of partners who can move into salaried positions if too many choose that option, he said.

NTC The firm plans a meeting with its entire staff this weekend in Easton to explain the new structure.

The move comes in a gloomy economic year for large law firms in Baltimore. Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman, a long-standing institution in the city, closed in June. And last month another large firm, Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, laid off nine associates, citing, in part, a downturn in business.

Mr. Civiletti said Venable, which has 285 lawyers, remained in good financial shape in its offices in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

"We're making plenty of money, I think, compared to most firms in this community, as well as in Washington," he said. "But we're not satisfied with where we are. All of us want to do better in 1993, 1994 and 1995. Therefore, we're taking a longer look at how we can serve the market as well as perform community service."

Mr. Civiletti said some partners might not mind stepping down to non-equity status because they would be guaranteed a salary if there was a downturn in business and would not have to share in the risks.

But others in the legal community said Venable partners would consider it a demotion to be moved from equity partner to non-equity partner, even if their guaranteed salaries equaled what they now earned while sharing the firm's profits.

A lawyer who is familiar with the restructuring plan said non-equity partners who do not draw big-money clients would be dropped from management level to glorified associates. Venable has about 150 associates, who usually are young lawyers seeking to become partners.

"What it basically does is reward the big rainmakers, and that's apparently the trend," the lawyer said, noting that other law firms in Baltimore and throughout the country already have non-equity partners.

The lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that newly salaried partners still might earn six-figure incomes -- as much as they now make -- but that equity partners would widen the income gap inprofitable years.

Mr. Civiletti said Venable lawyers will be told this weekend about such alternatives as working part time for the firm or as consultants, where they would not be employed by the firm.

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