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Some splits are just part of the way things are done [Commentary]

Journalists and lawyers have a trait in common that is shared by those who practice very few professions: they are fairly well-despised, at least as groups, by a lot of people.

Beyond that, they share an odd bit of comfort also enjoyed by politicians, that being, while in general, lawyers, journalists and politicians are held in low regard, when something needs to be done, a lawyer, politician or journalist is probably on the short list of people to call.

When it comes to getting things done in Harford County, few people have as solid a reputation as the lawyers at the Bel Air firm Gessner, Snee, Mahoney and Lutche. It is the go-to firm for dealing with high profile zoning cases, liquor license issues, criminal cases, business law and any number of other issues that involve the courts in Harford County. The firm also has a strong and effective lobbying component available to its clients.

Such a reputation doesn't grow by accident, nor does it come into being overnight or through anything but being effective at offering legal advice and advocating for clients.

So why would anyone want to leave such a firm, least of all the lawyer whose name is first on the list? John Gessner says he's at a time in his career when he wants to start making retirement plans, even as other lawyers in the firm are looking to continue growing.

In just about any other profession, such a statement could well be taken for being forced out of a troubled company, but that's not the case in the legal profession.

Unique among people in professions regarded as secure for those in practice, lawyers are subject to being fired at a moment's notice. As soon as a client tells a lawyer his or her services are no longer required, that lawyer sends his or her final bill and moves on.

This makes for sometimes curious arrangements among lawyers. A law partnership can be the result of something as simple as two lawyers whose areas of expertise don't overlap wanting to split the cost of a secretary and suite of offices. Or it can be as coordinated and integrated as Gessner, Snee, Mahoney and Lutche.

But when a lawyer decides to retire, it isn't like retiring from a news operation or a government job. When a lawyer leaves a successful partnership, the typical arrangement is comparable to a well-to-do couple getting what might be called a friendly divorce. The lawyers assign a value to what the departing partner's contribution is worth (and lawyers are very good at coming to agreements on this sort of thing) and a payment, usually confidential, is made. Clients, because they hire and fire lawyers at will, are free to stick with the old firm or the departing lawyer – or seek both for varying kinds of services.

So when a man of 56 like John Gessner says he's looking to wind down and split from a practice he helped build, there's every reason to expect former partners to be seen from time to time enjoying lunch together. And there's every reason to believe both Gessner and his former partners will continue to be successful in their professional lives.

In a lot of ways, including the sometimes transient nature of legal relationships, the law is an odd business. But there are plenty of people who enjoy the work, whether they're looking to expand how much of it they're doing, or take a few steps back.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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