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Alex Brown, Attorney with Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler, recently made a lateral move from another firm. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Lateral thinking: When attorneys switch firms

Some firms grow by hiring new attorneys; others prefer those with experience, a book of business

For Baltimore lawyer Alex J. Brown, moving from Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White LLC to Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler was a natural transition.

Brown, who started as a partner at Shapiro Sher last month, had built a practice in complex insurance litigation over the past few years and felt his commercial work was more compatible with Shapiro Sher than with Silverman Thompson’s other areas of focus.

Some firms, such as Offit Kurman and Shulman Rogers, use lateral hiring as a major means of expansion, but a lateral move like Brown’s is something of an outlier at Shapiro Sher, where the growth strategy is more focused on hiring and training associates, said Scott Foley, a partner at the firm and chair of its banking and financial services practice group.

“If you look at attorneys at our firm, they come here and it’s usually their first job,” Foley said. “We hire good young attorneys that had a clerkship, or graduated at the top of their class, or were on law review. We’ve had a lot of partners grow up in our firm — the lateral hire is more rare for us.”

At other firms, though, bringing in lawyers fresh out of law school or clerkships isn’t as attractive as finding mid-career attorneys who bring business to the firm from their first day on the job.

“We have grown pretty much exclusively by hiring lawyers laterally and by acquiring other law firms,” said Theodore A. Offit, managing principal at Offit Kurman. “Between the two, we have not done much hiring out of law schools at all.”

Offit Kurman, which had 10 attorneys a decade ago, passed the 100-lawyer mark in April and then expanded further by acquiring Severn & Kresslein P.A. in Frederick. The firm now has offices in nine cities.

Offit said an “aggressive growth plan” — a minimum of 10 percent growth each year — is a core component of the firm’s business strategy. The sources of that growth are typically laterals from both large and small firms, as well as solo practitioners, Offit said.

“The lawyers, they come trained and they come with a following,” he said. “For a firm like ours, it’s much easier to invest in higher compensation and pay for laterals, and we can afford to do that by not having training and development programs.”

Other firms, like Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy & Ecker P.A. in Potomac, use lateral hires to boost existing practice groups or develop new ones, but don’t aim for a specific growth target. Marc B. Bergoffen, who joined Shulman Rogers as a shareholder and member of the real estate practice group this year, said lateral hires like his occur more organically at the firm.

“There’s not any type of magical formula,” he said.

Bergoffen said he felt he’d “hit a ceiling” at his old firm, Bregman, Berbert, Schwartz & Gilday LLC in Bethesda, where he worked for a little more than eight years, and thought it was the right time in his career to make a change. Having worked in the area for some time, he already knew some of the attorneys at Shulman Rogers, and had met others through the Maryland State Bar Association.

Back at Shapiro Sher, where lateral hires are not as common, how an attorney fits with the firm’s culture is one of the biggest factors in the hiring decision, Foley said.

“We are not out there actively seeking to bring lawyers in,” Foley said. “[Brown] had the personality to fit in with our other partners, which is important for a lateral hire, and he’s going to help our firm grow in the future.”

Of course, the portability of the attorney’s clients will be high on any list of concerns during lateral moves, Bergoffen said — and most of his clients did follow him to Shulman Rogers.

“It’s ultimately the client’s decision who their lawyer is,” Bergoffen said. “You think you have these great relationships with your clients, but that’s certainly the biggest source of anxiety someone has when they move — will the work come with them?”

At Brown’s former firm, managing partner Steven D. Silverman noted that the firm has a diverse litigation practice — as well as a policy of not commenting on specific personnel changes. However, he did say it’s an attorney’s prerogative to take advantage of an opportunity to grow his business.

Brown, who said he was able to bring all of his business to Shapiro Sher, stressed the importance of not letting a job change affect clients.

“A lot of times, attorneys develop their practice coming up working with a firm’s existing clients. Since I went into [Silverman Thompson] and pioneered a whole new practice, mine was a little more portable,” he said. “If you have that book of business, think about how do you take it to the next level; where might your book of business grow and flourish.”