The state's second-biggest law firm yesterday turned to a new generation of lawyers to help lead it into the next century, as Venable, Baetjer and Howard named 42-year-old James L. Shea as managing partner.
Mr. Shea will succeed 63-year-old William J. McCarthy as the top lieutenant to firm Chairman Benjamin R. Civiletti.
Mr. Shea, an Owings Mills resident who has been a Venable partner since 1985, said he has wanted to be a trial lawyer since watching his grandfather as a child. But now he will spend much of his time out of the courtroom, implementing a restructuring that the firm's partners approved at a meeting at the Columbia Inn Monday.
The plan calls for changing the firm's name, at least for marketing purposes, to Venable from the traditional Venable, Baetjer and Howard, which will remain the formal, legal name of the firm.
More importantly, Mr. Shea said the firm will introduce a greater number of job classifications for lawyers, abandoning the already-eroding division between partners and associates by adding nonequity partners, staff attorneys who are not being considered for full partner status, and lawyers who serve as "of counsel," a quasi-consultant status.
The firm is also investing heavily in computer technology, with a goal of putting a personal computer on the desk of each of Venable's 235 lawyers for the first time. Mr. Shea said that will make the firm more efficient by allowing attorneys to access research done for similar cases and transactions, as well as to let lawyers track instructional materials and commonly used legal forms.
"The catalyst for making the change as of Jan. 1, 1995, is we have a direction, a common course," said Mr. Civiletti, who served as attorney general under President Jimmy Carter.
"We thought it was the ideal time to look for a new managing partner to implement it. It will take us beyond Bill's [Mr. McCarthy] being 65 [and] we wanted the continuity to get on that path with someone who would persevere, rather than change two years from now in the middle of it."
A lower-ranking partner in the firm, who asked not to be named, said Mr. Shea was the consensus choice from among a relatively small number of top Venable attorneys who were willing to give up a large part of their practice to devote time to firm administration.
Mr. Civiletti said he will remain the firm's chief executive officer, while Mr. Shea manages the day-to-day affairs of the firm.
Amid all the smiles and handshakes at Venable's offices in the Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust building downtown, the fact was that the restructuring was a response to several difficult years at Venable.
Earlier this year, the firm was dropped from American Lawyer magazine's list of the Top 100 firms in America. Last year, the firm dropped a number of partners that it has never formally disclosed, though discussions with several partners put the figure at approximately six. And the 1994 edition of the Of Counsel 700, a guide to the nation's top law firms, showed that Venable had lost about 13 percent of its lawyers during 1993, a loss of about 35 attorneys.
The recession hurt, but Mr. Civiletti said last year that the longer-range problem was changes in the expectations that big corporate clients have for firms like Venable, whose clients include local institutions such as Mercantile Bankshares Corp., Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc. and The Sun.
"The main engine is clients treating legal services like other services," Mr. Civiletti said yesterday. "If you don't change your methodology of working . . . but instead practice in terms of no matter how long it takes to do something, you are going to get paid for it, you're a dinosaur."
The change has led Venable to incorporate training costs it used to pass on to clients, along with other administrative expenses, he said.
The firm has also reformed billing to submit to competitive
bidding to attract work, offering fixed rates for some services rather than traditional hourly rates, and even making fees contingent on the completion of corporate transactions, a model borrowed from plaintiffs' litigators.
But both partners and ex-partners have also pointed to a cultural division in the firm. They have contended that pressure from top-producing stars to maximize their personal income has led the firm to crack down on lesser lawyers, including capable attorneys who are not skilled at attracting business, either forcing them out or funneling some of them into less prestigious and lucrative career paths.
Mr. Shea is Venable's first managing partner since Jacques T. Schlenger, who stepped down in 1987, not to have begun his private legal career at Venable.
Instead, the graduate of Princeton University and the University of Virginia Law School joined the Baltimore firm of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes after clerking for U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Young, now a senior judge.
"He is a top-grade trial lawyer," said Charles E. Iliff Jr., a Semmes partner who has worked closely with Mr. Shea. "I don't think Venable could have made a better choice. . . . Managing a law firm is like herding cats. I think Jim can do it without making any of the cats mad."
Mr. Shea left Semmes to join the Maryland attorney general's office in 1979, where he was supervised by former Venable partner Paul F. Strain. Both lawyers rejoined Venable, Mr. Shea in 1982 and Mr. Strain, himself now one of the firm's top lawyers, a year later.
The former Princeton lacrosse team captain said he wanted to be a trial lawyer since he was a small child watching his grandfather, himself a noted trial attorney.
"Early on I saw that was what I wanted to be," Mr. Shea said. "It was exciting, challenging, and had all the competition. I love it. It's a great way to make a living."