After 70 years, firm may close Attorneys leaving amid speculation over Smith, Somerville

Legal affairs

December 19, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Attorneys at Smith, Somerville & Case LLC have begun a mass exodus amid strong speculation that one of Baltimore's largest and oldest law firms will close its doors after Dec. 31. Local attorneys said the firm has failed to find a market niche.

The most recent defection includes three partners and an associate who are leaving to join Hodes, Ulman, Pessin and Katz on Jan. 2, bringing that firm's total number of attorneys to 25, making it the largest in Baltimore County.

In addition to those four, another group from 70-year-old Smith, Somerville is setting up its own boutique firm on Jan. 2.

Michael J. Baxter, a partner at Smith, Somerville, announced he will create Baxter, Baker, Sidle & Conn along with eight other Smith, Somerville attorneys.

"We wanted to see if some of our ideas about how to practice law would be better than what's happening" at Smith, Somerville, said Baxter, who has been with the firm for 16 years. His newly created firm will be located in the Crestar Bank Building on East Baltimore Street, he said.

After announcing his pending departure, Baxter said he has been "out of the loop" on Smith, Somerville decisions, but added: "The odds are the firm will not continue in business."

Randy Lutz, a partner who is leaving to join Hodes, Ulman, Pessin and Katz, said Smith, Somerville voted to exist at least through Dec. 31. No vote had been taken on what would happen next, he said.

"I'm still hopeful the firm will continue and remain viable," he said. "Whether a group will carry on the Smith, Somerville & Case name, I don't know. But I hope so."

Howard G. Goldberg, Smith, Somerville's managing partner, did not return phone calls to his office yesterday.

Also joining the Hodes law firm are: Patricia Lambert, who will become Hodes' first woman principal and will concentrate on business litigation with an emphasis on insurance regulatory matters; and Barry Bach, who will concentrate in civil litigation. J.T. Bathon, a Smith, Somerville associate, will also join Hodes, concentrating on business litigation.

"There's been a difference in philosophy on the future and our vision," Lutz said, speaking of the rift between the departing group and the remaining partners at Smith, Somerville. "It's the same type of thing that has been going on in large firms for the last five to 10 years."

The Hodes firm wooed him away because it's young and dynamic, said Lutz, who will head the firm's new health care and environmental law division.

"Smith, Somerville is laid back, old-line, staid and not an aggressive marketer," he said.

Not specifying a niche when the trend in the legal profession is to be a boutique firm with a clearly defined market has become Smith, Somerville's death knell, local attorneys said.

The firm does work in 16 areas, including business litigation, construction law, environmental law and workers' compensation, and has had about 200 employees, including 45 lawyers. It has been headquartered on four floors of the 100 Light St. tower since 1977.

Michael C. Hodes, founder and managing director of the law firm of Hodes, Ulman, Pessin & Katz, said Smith, Somerville was too large for its own good.

"When a law firm today gets to be its size, it ends up in no man's land," Hodes said. "It has to either compete with the regional firms or become small enough where they can do things extremely well.

Hodes' firm, which concentrates on elder law, tax and business, litigation, health care, environment and labor, said becoming the largest Baltimore County firm still allows it to be manageable.

"A law firm is a business," Hodes said. "But unfortunately, lawyers like to lawyer and not manage the business."

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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