Shrinking Semmes Plots Reorganization

April 06, 1995|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

Two more partners left the Baltimore law firm of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes this week, bringing the number of recent defectors to at least 15 out of what was a roster of 68 partners as recently as last year.

Thomas J. Manning Jr. and Wendy Widmann quit Semmes Tuesday and began work yesterday at Smith & Downey, a Towson law firm specializing in employee benefits law. Smith & Downey, which grew to nine attorneys with the pair's arrival, was formed in 1992 by partners who left Maryland's largest law firm, Piper & Marbury.

The move comes at a time when Semmes is examining its future. Semmes Chairman Cleaveland D. Miller said the firm hopes to have a plan for its future by tomorrow, after a two-week study that looked at options that included dissolving the firm.

"I am finishing putting together the details on our plan to go forward," Mr. Miller said. "Semmes is not going to dissolve. The details should be ready in 24 to 48 hours."

The plan will come after a consultant's review of which sectors of Semmes are most viable as the core of a streamlined firm, sources close to the firm said.

The firm is well-known for representing defendants in accident and worker compensation claims, leading to speculation that the plan will call for a smaller litigation firm, but Semmes also has a broad-based commercial practice.

Other sources said there is no sign that the firm's offices at 250 W. Pratt St., which offer a commanding view of the diamond at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, are about to come onto the rental market.

Mr. Manning was the head of Semmes' two-partner employee benefits department. Ms. Widmann split her time between that department and Semmes' estate law section, of which she is the former chairwoman. Both had been at Semmes since leaving law school; Ms. Widmann for 14 years and Mr. Manning for 20.

Mr. Manning said his move was consistent with the evolution of the legal industry toward small, specialized firms. The shift has come mostly at the expense of moderately large firms like Semmes, which last May was Maryland's fourth-biggest firm, with 141 lawyers, according to a national directory of major law firms.

"I think it makes sense for the 1990s," Mr. Manning said. "Clients want a particular lawyer for a particular job. . . . They think they can get better, cheaper, faster service from a specialist, which is what we are."

Semmes and another midsized Baltimore firm, Weinberg & Green LLC, have borne the brunt of the shakeout, which the early-1990s recession made more severe. Weinberg laid off an unconfirmed number of lawyers last fall after seven partners left within three months.

Two other midsized firms -- Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver and Whiteford, Taylor & Preston -- have been stable or grown slightly during the past year.

Henry Smith, a partner in Smith & Downey, said his two new partners approached the firm earlier this year and were attracted by his firm's low overhead costs. He said a lower cost base lets lawyers make more money from serving the same base of clients, even if they cut their billing rates.

"We cut their hourly rate 15 to 20 percent when they walked in here last night," Mr. Smith said. "We pay one-third of what Piper does [in rent]. We have zero season tickets. . . . I'm sitting at a pressed-wood desk in a used chair."

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