Canines, lawyers' newest partners

Dogs in the office create small-town feel

August 15, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

When attorney Martin J. Snider says, "Harley, come here," he isn't talking to his legal assistant.

Harley is his puppy.

Suburban law office formality has declined over the years and the popularity of legal beagles -- dogs that lounge in small law offices -- has risen. Rare a decade ago, they are nosing their way into the once button-down culture of the legal profession.

Dogs give law offices in metropolitan areas a small-town flavor, especially where lawyers have converted old homes near courthouses into offices, said C. Theresa Beck, Baltimore County Bar Association president.

One reason Snider left a small firm about six years ago was his desire for a canine companion during the day. Half of the other lawyers there preferred a dogless workplace, Snider said.

Today, a trash-can barrier at the doorway keeps Harley inside Snider's bone-strewn, second-floor office.

Not that Harley wouldn't like to greet every visitor to the Annapolis suite Snider shares with two other lawyers, but a hello from the energetic 70-pound Doberman pinscher could scare some would-be clients into the hands of the competition.

Most client meetings take place in the suite's conference room, without Harley.

Snider brings Harley to work to socialize the pup and to comfort himself, but office etiquette training has a price. Harley has cut teeth on dozens of pencils, a letter to a client, even a tape. At the dog's urging, Snider has dashed outside for an emergency walk.

Only in the past few years has law-office culture changed so drastically that informality and office lifestyle are conscious choices for lawyers, said Jeanette L. Cole, adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she teaches law-firm management.

Changing focus

"It's a more relaxed approach, saying, `My life can be part of my law practice,' " she said. "It is part of a moving away from a focus on `How many billable hours do I have?' and more toward `What do I want my lifestyle to be?' "

Sole practitioners and attorneys in very small offices can set their workplace tone, just as they can craft practices conducive to laid-back offices devoid of demands that they dash off to court at a moment's notice, she said.

Snider, for example, trots around his office in jeans and a T-shirt on days when his only office guest is Harley.

Small vs. large firms

Roughly 63 percent of Maryland's 28,000 lawyers are either sole practitioners or are in an office of five or fewer attorneys, the Maryland State Bar Association estimates. How many attorneys bring dogs to work is unknown, but it is not ordinary enough for there to be "Sorry, Your Honor, my dog ate my motion" jokes going around.

Big law firms, which tend to be more straight laced, are less likely to cultivate clients who don't mind dog hair on their suits, Cole said.

Besides, a small, one-dog firm differs from a 60-attorney firm with a pack of dogs overwhelming one allergic lawyer, just as there is a difference between a law practice in a small business strip and one in a downtown office tower.

Large firms have not taken the approach of a handful of companies nationwide that permit dogs as a way to attract employees.

"I can't recall an instance of seeing a dog in a law firm in downtown Baltimore," said Deborah Green Shortridge, of Weinberg & Green in Baltimore.

"I would think that more of your large firms would frown upon it. Can you imagine 20 dogs in an office? It would be an unmanageable situation," Snider said.

A homelike atmosphere

Terrence M. Nolan took to bringing Mike, the family's 2-year-old bichon frise, to his law offices in Arbutus and Glen Burnie about a year and a half ago.

The playful 18-pound pooch helps project a homelike atmosphere that Nolan hopes will soothe squirming clients.

When Mike isn't entertaining Nolan's year-old son, the dog is playing ball with clients' children while the attorney meets with the adults. Nolan says that conveys to clients that he is a "regular guy."

`Accidents'

Dogs have been welcomed on occasion in David S. Harvis's 10-person Columbia law office, though a recent experience shows the downside of canine guests.

"One of them disgraced our suite, and we have not yet identified who it was," Harvis said.

After another lawyer found an unwelcome gift on his carpet, Harvis's 55-pound mixed Labrador puppy, Merlot, has been invited to stay home.

"If you mention Merlot," said Harvis, "please say `the alleged accident.' We don't want to accuse him unjustly."

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