Old-line law firm to shut doors today Smith, Somerville cites 'cultural change'

December 30, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Too large to be nimble in Baltimore's changing legal market, the venerable law firm of Smith, Somerville & Case LLC will permanently close its doors today and vacate its four floors of the 100 Light St. tower.

The 70-year-old law firm's 26 partners voted unanimously yesterday to dissolve the firm.

They discovered it was no longer flattering to be one of Baltimore's largest and oldest firms. These days, that's a sign of being out of touch; clients today want smaller, boutique firms.

And the partners will give them just that. Four groups of them announced they will splinter off and create their own specialty law firms, and a fifth group will join the Baltimore County firm of Hodes, Ulman, Pessin and Katz.

"Smith, Somerville & Case has been a major firm for some years with a loyal clientele. But the practice of law has changed," said managing partner Howard G. Goldberg, who has been with the firm for 27 years. The firm's headquarters have been on Light Street since 1977. "This wasn't an economic decision. This firm has had as good a year as past years," he said. "This is a decision based on a cultural change.

"Clients no longer send all of their work to one firm," Goldberg said. "So it's no longer necessary to be full-service. That need began to die in the 1980s. It no longer exists in the 1990s."

The firm did work in 16 areas, including business litigation, construction law, environmental law and workers' compensation. But it shared clients with almost every other firm in the city, Goldberg said, as clients stopped hiring law firms and began selecting lawyers for their particular expertise.

As recently as 1995, the partners of Smith, Somerville -- which had 200 employees, including 45 lawyers -- saw only growth in its future. That was illustrated by the firm's extending its lease commitment at the Light Street tower to 2009.

But Baltimore's economic reality caught up with the firm, Goldberg said: Major companies are moving to the suburbs and major banks are being gobbled up by other banks, stripping the city's law firms of potential institutional clients.

The firm's fate was cemented in August, when six partners announced they were leaving to form Baxter, Baker, Sidle & Conn with eight other Smith, Somerville attorneys. The specialty firm will be located in the Crestar Bank Building on East Baltimore Street.

There was no talk of Smith, Somerville's dissolving before that announcement, said Gary R. Jones, a member of that group.

"We felt a smaller, more focused practice would be more beneficial," said Jones, a Smith, Somerville partner. "I came to the firm in 1990 because it was an old-line, established law firm. But during the seven years I've practiced here, I realized it's better to be lean and mean."

The announced departure caused minimal confusion, Jones said. "I was pleasantly surprised by everyone's gentlemanly behavior."

After the initial six partners decided to leave, there was a vote to continue operating until the end of the year, said Michael Kelly, a partner who has created Kelly, Spicer & Sidle, an estate planning and asset protection firm in Timonium.

"We needed to give each other time to figure out what would happen to the 20 remaining partners," Kelly said. "I'm upset that Smith, Somerville will not be able to continue. But I hope we can carry on the same tradition with our new firm."

Clients were all informed by their representing attorneys what would happen at the beginning of the year, and in most cases, those clients will follow the new firms, Goldberg said.

Goldberg has created Goldberg, Pike & Besche, a seven-attorney firm that will specialize in construction law and insurance litigation at 2 E. Fayette St.

Theodore B. Cornblatt has formed Cornblatt, Bennett, Penhallegon & Roberson with three other attorneys. That firm will focus on workers' compensation, health care and employment law, and general civil litigation. It will set up shop at 201 N. Charles St.

Randy Lutz, Patricia Lambert, Barry Bach, and J.T. Bathon are joining Hodes, Ulman, Pessin and Katz, bringing that firm to a total of 25 attorneys, the largest in Baltimore County.

All of the boutique firms will start operating on Jan. 2.

To his knowledge, Goldberg said, every one of the firm's employees and attorneys has been placed in a new job.

Said Cornblatt, who has been with the firm for 32 years: "It's sad. I have a lot of fond memories of Smith, Somerville & Case."

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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