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30 years in, Offit Kurman continues to think big

Law firm’s founders look back, discuss plans for future growth

'One of the reasons we’re able to grow is that we have been a risk-taking firm in a risk-averse marketplace,' says Ted Offit, right, of Offit Kurman. Ted Offit, Maurice Offit, left, and Howard Kurman, center, formed their firm 30 years ago. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

‘One of the reasons we’re able to grow is that we have been a risk-taking firm in a risk-averse marketplace,’ says Ted Offit, right, of Offit Kurman. Offit, his brother, Maurice, left, and Howard Kurman, center, formed their firm 30 years ago. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Offit Kurman started out 30 years ago as a small Baltimore law firm founded by brothers Maurice and Ted Offit and their childhood friend, Howard Kurman. The trio had a desire to think bigger and expand across state lines, and now Fulton-based Offit Kurman has 140 lawyers from New York City to Tysons Corner, with plans to have 200 attorneys by 2020.

“I always thought that one of the keys of our success is that it didn’t take us long to interact as partners because we had known each other for so long,” said Maurice Offit. “Any issues that partners usually have in a law firm, we had worked out long before.”

“We had similar objectives and goals,” added Kurman, “which was even more important in terms of wanting to grow a small, suburban firm into a regional firm. That didn’t come at first, but it came over time and it has continued to this day.”

As the firm celebrates its 30th anniversary, the three founding partners sat down with The Daily Record to talk about the firm’s growth, the lessons they’ve learned along the way and the state of the practice of law. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.

Why did you want to become a regional firm?

Maurice Offit: It happened almost by accident. We were a Baltimore firm – all of us were born and raised in Baltimore – and then our office was in Owings Mills. We had gotten to the point where the firm had gotten too large for the Owings Mills office. We had a choice to make. One was to relocate to a larger Baltimore County locale, or the other was to start to branch out and go into other parts of Maryland. We decided to branch out. It was one of the best decisions we ever made.

Could you have survived if you didn’t branch out?

Howard Kurman: I think we could’ve, but one of the premises behind our growth plan was that we wanted to have depth in all of the service areas that a privately held business or families of wealth would need. It’s very difficult in today’s legal market to be very small or of constricted size because the concept of being a one-stop shop for your clients becomes harder the smaller that you are. Frankly, I think the future of the legal market is not in the small firm, unless it’s a niche-oriented (or) boutique.

You initially had the goal to have 100 attorneys by 2013 and now you’re shooting for 200 by 2020. Why set these benchmarks?

Ted Offit: In order to have a plan, you have to have goals and metrics that are tied to the clients. We had a growth plan; it was a regional growth plan. We decided to grow at a 10 percent growth rate. When we extrapolated the numbers, (it) came to a 200-person target.

What is the process behind building a firm with 200 attorneys?

TO: We have a fairly defined recruiting process. The difficult part is onboarding. Obviously, things have to be done one way, they have to be done the Offit Kurman way.

What is the “Offit Kurman way” and what are you looking for in an Offit Kurman lawyer?

MO: We’re looking to recruit two kinds of attorneys. One would be an attorney that provides us with depth to an existing practice. The other is an attorney that provides us with scope into new areas of practice or new geographical areas. The Offit Kurman way is to be entrepreneurial and to concentrate on business development and to take advantage of the firm’s marketing footprint. We concentrate much more on fit over finance because our financial terms are preset –  everyone at the firm is on the same compensation system. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been there for the longest period of time or the shortest period of time.

How did your compensation plan come to be?

TO: We had a retreat, Thanksgiving 1996 and we established the Offit Kurman compensation plan. The three of us sat down for many hours to come up with a scalable compensation system that would help the firm in times of growth and help the firm in times of contraction.

Has the compensation system turned off people from joining the firm?

HK: I think to the contrary. The compensation system has been a large attraction for entrepreneurial attorneys who like a transparent system. We think that develops an ownership mentality, even with an attorney that’s been there three years. We want people to think that Offit Kurman is entrepreneurially driven, just like our clients.

How does diversity play into how you recruit attorneys and retain them at the firm?

HK: One of the byproducts of growth is the issue of making sure that your demographics at the firm match the communities in which you practice. The firm created a diversity committee, of which I am a member, about a year and a half ago. Now we meet regularly. We even use some outside resources to identify goals and objectives of the diversity committee… internally (and) how we recruit both administrative employees as well as lawyers and externally.

Are you looking to open any new offices?

TO: We opened up Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania in January and we will have five people in that office by the end of (May). We expect that to be full service in short order. We are looking to enhance the number of offices that are in the region. We’re looking at Delaware, we’re looking at New Jersey.

What has been the biggest change in the practice of law in the last 30 years?

TO: Speed. Things move at a very quick pace.

HK: I think it’s also access to information. The digital age has arrived and lawyers no longer have an exclusive monopoly on information, so there’s a plethora of ways that people can get information just by Googling, whatever they want to Google.

MO: It’s hard for me to believe the changes that have taken place from a technological standpoint. I remember when I started my first law practice, I ordered a typewriter, I ordered a long paper and onion-skin paper that goes in between carbon paper. I had a Rolodex on my desk. To go from that to email is mind-boggling.

Any regrets or opportunities you wish you had jumped in on?

TO: If you get it right 60 or 70 percent of the time, you’re doing great. If you’re a poorly managed firm, you’re getting it right 90 percent of the time because you’re just not taking enough risk. One of the reasons we’re able to grow is that we have been a risk-taking firm in a risk-averse marketplace. We fail plenty of times and that’s OK.

What are some challenges that law firms face today?

TO: Pricing is a big issue… many law firms have priced themselves out of the marketplace for what individuals and small businesses can afford. That will have an impact on the legal landscape going forward. I have yet to see a reversal or decline in pricing. I think you will see changes in pricing going forward, whether it’s reduction in price or different ways of charging fees, the issue has to be addressed.

HK: For younger people contemplating a legal career, I really do believe, depending on what your goals and objectives are as a young attorney, you’re going to have to develop a book of business unless you have a desire to serve in the government or public service or in some other capacity.

MO: The demand for legal services is flat. …Part of that is attributable to the electronic revolution and the information that people can obtain online. I think that trend will continue and lawyers have to continue to be innovative to demonstrate that what they’re doing is worthwhile to the clients.

Do you have a succession plan for when you three decide to step down?

TO: We’re in the midst of the succession plan now. We have an age 70 out date for management. Maurice and Howard are not quite there, but they’re getting closer to 70. It’s a big change from having three founders and two of the founders are leaving management. We’ve identified successors already. Tim Lynch, he’s the new managing principal at the firm.

Is there another number you’re looking at beyond 200 lawyers?

TO: We’ll re-plan at the end of 2020. When know where we are through 2020 and then we’ll plan the next five years through 2025. A lot could change. We are dictated by a regulatory environment. Today, you can only own a law firm if you’re a lawyer. If that changes, the whole world opens up where there is financial investments in law firms and a different way of practicing law.

What advice would you give to someone starting a firm today?

TO: Join Offit Kurman (laughs). I’d give a couple of pieces of advice. It’s very, very hard to be in a smaller solo practice. I think if you’re going to start, you need to start with a group. Starting a solo would be very, very difficult. Second, think forward and think big. If you’re just going to go into business day by day and knowing what you’re building to or why, you’re going to have a lot of struggle.

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