LEGAL MOTION Breaking tradition, attorneys increasingly switch firms

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the years since he graduated from law school, James L. Lekin has practiced law at three of Baltimore's largest and most respected firms: Venable, Baetjer and Howard; Miles & Stockbridge; and Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

Two weeks ago Mr. Lekin left Whiteford to join the Baltimore office of a fourth well-regarded law firm, Washington's Patton, Boggs & Blow, for what is rumored to be a hefty increase in income.

Yet the quiet, 52-year-old lawyer shifts uncomfortably in his seat when asked why he has made so many moves. "You know," he responds with a defensive edge in his voice, "this sort of thing has been going on in corporate America for a long time."

Indeed it has. For decades, American managers, spurred by ambition and the desire for larger paychecks, have worked their way up the executive ladder by leaving one company for another when greater opportunity beckoned. Now, with financial pressures mounting, competition growing and the clubby atmosphere that was once the hallmark of elite law firms breaking down, lawyers are doing the same.

In years past few lawyers would have even considered the idea of abandoning one law firm for another in search of professional and financial gain.

Most held to "the tenet that you're loyal to a firm, that you stay there through thick and thin, almost the same way people treat marriage vows," said Anne Neal, a partner in Williamson & Neal Inc., a Washington-based legal recruiting firm.

Only with the 1980s boom in hostile takeovers and other highly lucrative legal business did lawyers' reluctance to switch law firms begin to break down in such cities as New York and Washington. Soon lawyers there began to move between top firms like star athletes between competing teams.

This past year the change appears finally to have come to Baltimore's conservative legal community as well.

Since June, at least 11 partners in major Baltimore law firms have defected to competing firms in the city. Five of those lawyers -- including Mr. Lekin and fellow Whiteford partners James R. Deveney II and Read K. McCaffrey -- have made the switch since mid-February.

Three days ago the law firm of Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander confirmed that George K. Reynolds III will leave the Towson office of Venable, Baetjer and Howard in March to become chairman of Gordon, Feinblatt's trusts and estates department.

Some of the moves were prompted by what lawyers say has been a dramatic shift away from the collegiality that once characterized prominent law firms and toward an increasing emphasis on efficiency, competitiveness and profit.

Baltimore lawyer Nathaniel E. Jones Jr. joined Miles & Stockbridge out of law school, for example, because of what he calls "the quality-of-life factor."

"You joined the firm and you knew you'd be there until you went to your grave. You didn't have to compete with other associates to keep your place, like other large firms required," he said.

Over the course of nine years, however, Mr. Jones grew increasingly dissatisfied with the way Miles & Stockbridge was handling several staffing and management issues. Last September he left the firm and became a partner at Venable, Baetjer and Howard.

Venable beefed up his staff of associates and supported his desire to market his services, Mr. Jones said.

Other factors are increasing dissatisfaction among local lawyers and prompting some to look for greener pastures. With the onset of the recession, for example, Baltimore law firms are shaving overhead to the bone and discounting fees for corporate clients that generate a steady workload.

Some firms also have brought in lawyers from outside or reorganized departments to beef up staffing in areas where work is still plentiful.

While such moves make sense from a fiscal standpoint, they have ruffled feathers of older lawyers who were used to a more traditional way of practicing law.

Frank, Bernstein, for example, recently combined 22 partners from its corporate, banking, real estate, tax, litigation and bankruptcy departments into a new bankruptcy and loan workout department. The change caused conflict, however, between the firm's management committee and Harvey M. Lebowitz, who had headed the bankruptcy department for many years. Eventually Mr. Lebowitz left the firm and joined Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

At the same time, lawyers' "billable hours," or hours of fee-generating work, are coming under increasing scrutiny from law firm management committees.

A decade ago, it was acceptable in most elite firms for a lawyer to record 1,800 billable hours per year, which works out to slightly less than 40 hours per week, plus a two-week vacation. Today a partner who bills 2,000 hours per year, or even 2,500 hours, is considered to be working at minimum level, lawyers say.

Because they involve lawyers with high-profile reputations, the most recent departures in Baltimore have generated much comment among local lawyers, said Winnie Borden, president of W. C. Borden & Associates, a local legal recruiting firm. "Making a move in Baltimore is like moving from one family to another because everybody knows all the players," she said.

Speculation about the reasons behind the changes has also been rife. Money may have been a deciding factor in some instances.

Mr. Lekin, Mr. Deveney, Mr. McCaffrey and former Frank, Bernstein partner Irving Walker are receiving 30 percent to 50 percent more compensation now than they did in their former law firms, according to someone who refused to be quoted because he was not authorized to release the information.

Mr. Deveney declined to comment specifically on his compensation at Patton, Boggs, saying only that "the potential for future benefits is greater here" than at Whiteford.

"Let's just say we didn't take a pay cut," added Mr. Lekin.

Mr. McCaffrey has filed suit against Pan Am Corp. on behalf of the families of the flight crew members who were killed when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. He will be allowed to keep half of his potential multimillion-dollar fee at Patton, Boggs, instead of having to add the entire fee to the partnership kitty, as would have been required at Whiteford, said the same source who refused to be quoted.

"I really don't want to comment on that," Mr. McCaffrey replied when asked if he would make more money in his new position.

No matter what rewards await the lawyer who switches from onelaw firm to another, the move can be emotionally wrenching.

"I would be much less than candid if I were to tell you it was an experience that did not have difficult moments," Mr. McCaffrey said of the meeting in which he told Whiteford managing partner Louis G. Close Jr. that he was leaving the firm after 18 years there.

"Unless you're a robot, you can't be some place for that long and not have regrets about the folks you leave behind," he added.

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