Lawyers saw sense in joining forces

Expanded firm has more resources, say founding partners

Small business

March 11, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Michael Davis was tired of seeing clients walk out of the door of his law firm, and Fred Coover wanted to develop a larger business.

So the two lawyers -- longtime associates who often made referrals for each other -- joined forces, creating Davis, Coover, Agnor & Barr.

Although still a small firm with eight lawyers, the group has become the second-largest home-grown law firm in Howard County, an area dominated by solo practitioners.

"In Central Maryland, I don't know of any other county that has so few firms of [more] than three or four attorneys," said Davis, senior partner in the new firm. "I know from clients of mine, there is frustration when we can't meet their need. I don't think we'd be serving our clients nearly as well by staying as two small firms."

The firm, with a staff of 14 in downtown Columbia, concentrates in several areas that the partners feel are complementary. Davis, a longtime attorney in the county, focuses mainly on estate planning and elder law -- topics of importance to baby boomers, he said. Coover, also with a long history in the county, focuses on civil litigation and real estate transactions.

Jeffrey Agnor, who formerly ran a practice with Davis, usually handles business clients, creating employment and other contracts, and John Barr, Coover's former partner, focuses on land use.

Their areas of interest work together, Coover said, because business clients may need personal services like estate planning, and either of those areas can easily spill into real estate or litigation.

"It is increasingly difficult to be solo and be effective and be available to your clients all the time," Coover said. "I litigate, they don't, but they needed it."

Law practices in Howard County are typically no more than three-person teams, in part because larger law firms developed around large corporations in Baltimore, said Robert Guth, an attorney and president of the Howard County Bar Association. Many of the attorneys practicing in Howard County worked at the older, large firms, and later started their own practices, Guth said.

As the companies moved out of Baltimore, the large firms began establishing offices in the suburbs. Because those satellite offices are here, most firms in the county have never developed beyond a few attorneys, Guth said. Reese & Carney, the county's largest homegrown firm, has 16 lawyers.

"I think for the majority of law practiced here, there is no reason to have a large law firm," Guth said. "What benefit do you get? You're creating overhead and administrative costs."

Instead, he said, Howard County lawyers have taken up the practice of referring clients among themselves. That is what Davis and Coover once did for each other, but both said they were having to refer business to the other too often, watching money walk out the door.

Now, with a bigger office, those matters can stay in-house.

"We don't want to give work away," Coover said. "With this new firm, we have the resources. We can say yes."

The firm wants to be able to say yes more often in the future. Plans within the next two years include expanding the firm with two or three more lawyers, bringing expertise in bankruptcy, business and litigation.

"I'm anxious to get the message out that people don't have to go to Baltimore or Washington. They can get good legal counsel right here," Davis said.

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