Gessner leaves powerful Bel Air law firm for solo practice

John Gessner and Joe Snee may be only three years apart in age, but they're at very different points in their lives.

Gessner, 56, got married and had children early, now they're out of the house. Snee, 53, has two children, one 16 and one 14.

"In five, six, seven years, I want to retire completely or slow down a lot," Gessner said.

Which is why, after nearly 30 years of working together and in a business partnership for 20, Gessner chose to leave the firm of Gessner, Snee, Mahoney and Lutche, branching off into solo law practice from one of the more powerful law firms in Harford County. In the works since late summer, the split was official Dec. 28, 2012. Terms of the buyout are confidential.

"It was a very friendly and amicable split," Gessner said last week at his new office just across the street from his old one. "It's best for everyone. They can go forward and do what they want and I won't be in the way, and I can do what I want and practice law without all the other stuff. That's what I enjoy doing, meeting clients and solving problems."

Gessner said he could not disclose details of the split, other than to say his former firm is buying him out over time.

"I'm very happy, it's a very fair deal," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, it worked out well for everyone."

"I think we're just in different stations in life. John wanted to go out on his own, others wanted to continue to grow the firm and that's what we're going to do," Snee said. "It's a culmination of what he wants to do and what we want to do and at this point in time they really are two different things."

There is no animosity, Snee said, it's part of the "natural cycle" of law firms.

Growing vs. retiring

Snee has "all kinds of debts" and bills to pay, while he doesn't, Gessner said, adding he doesn't want to be a landlord or a commercial real estate developer.

"He wants to continue to work longer than I do," he said. "I didn't want to go into a 10-year debt, with personal guarantees."

His hope of either partial or full retirement "is not consistent with what they want to do," Gessner said of his former firm.

"And it would be impossible for them to go forward with their plans as long as I was a shareholder there," he said. "I just don't want any part of that. For me and my family, it would just be a bad move."

In a solo practice, Gessner is also of counsel with Getz Getz & Getz. He's a lone lawyer, with a part-time assistant, and while he has some administrative responsibilities of running a business, it's nothing like it was before when he was president of Gessner, Snee, Mahoney and Lutche.

New office space

As for Snee, Mahoney, Lutche and Hemlinger (John Mahoney, Steve Lutche and Colleen Hemlinger), the firm has five lawyers, plus two of counsel – Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County delegate in the Maryland General Assembly, and John Zink. They came on June 1, 2012.

Snee said he hopes to add an eighth lawyer by March.

"For our type of practice, we really need 10. As the company grows and the economy improves, we hope to go north of 10 sometime in the future," Snee said.

The firm has outgrown its disjointed space on Main Street, where it moved on April 1, 1989, and is looking to move its offices by the beginning of 2014.

Initially, Snee and his partners planned to build a five-story office building just a block south from its existing offices, tearing down a group of three buildings and then going up.

"When the economy collapsed, it didn't make sense to pursue that. With the economy, I just let that plan expire," Snee said.

The new plan includes renovation and rehabilitation of the larger of the three buildings that were to be torn down.

"We hope to do that as soon as possible," he said, adding he would like to be in the renovated building by 2014.

The new office would have on-site parking, "which we didn't enjoy here," Snee said. The interior and exterior would be gutted except for the facade, which would be updated.

"The goal is to have a very, very nice entrance to a waiting area welcoming for our clients," he said. "Behind that, we hope it functions and flows well for everyone."

Moving on

While his former firm moves forward with plans to expand. He's content as a one-man show, with a part-time assistant. Maybe he'll need a second assistant and, possibly, a second lawyer, but for now, he's happy with Getz, a firm begun in 1957 that he sought out for its "integrity" and his "admiration for the firm."

"I thought they were compatible with what I want to do," he said. "There's not a finer group of people in Harford County."

It's a little different with the Getzes than it was at GSML. At Getz, the lawyers do most of the work themselves, without the aide of legal assistants.

"I'm learning to become more self-sufficient," Gessner said. "I get to run a case from start to finish. It's different, and I find I like it better."

Gessner, who has been handling zoning cases for years, brought just about all his clients with him.

"The clients recognize the value I provide. I'm pleased and gratified" to see his clients follow him, he said.

Gessner said the move has been wonderful for him.

"It's liberating, it really is," he said. "I can do what I want when I want to do it. I call the shots and don't have to ask anyone else."

With size, he said, comes more headaches and more responsibility and "now I can enjoy what I'm doing."

Practicing alone, Gessner said, he's happy.

"I'm much, much happier. I know this was just the right thing for me to do. I'm fortunate to be in the position where I could do this," he said.

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