Most lawyers don’t have to endure the dissolution of one law firm, let alone two. But when 55-year-old DC-based Howrey went under in March, it was déjà vu for the 40-attorney group that joined the firm in 2008 from Thelen, when that firm collapsed.
Andrew Ness, former DC managing partner of Thelen and until recently a partner at Howrey, describes the reaction among his group as the lawyers realized that their second firm was tanking: “It was ‘Oh, God, no. We don’t want to go through this again.’ ”
The former Thelen lawyers, who focus on construction-industry clients, didn’t have to go to Howrey. When Thelen dissolved, the group made the decision to stick together, and three firms made offers to bring on all 40. The partners in the construction practice voted unanimously to take the offer from Howrey. It seemed like a smart move at the time, given that Howrey posted a 29-percent revenue increase in 2008.
Howrey’s financial performance plummeted in 2009, and an exodus of partners began. Despite speculation that acquiring the big construction practice in the middle of the recession was a bad move for Howrey, the lawyers say they remained one of the few bright spots at the firm.
In 2010, say Ness and Kevin O’Brien, another partner in the practice, the construction lawyers brought in more than $30 million of business. Former Howrey vice chair Sean Boland agrees that Howrey was fortunate to have the construction attorneys.
The construction lawyers say Thelen and Howrey went under for different reasons. Thelen had structural problems, including a business model that depended on an expensive New York office, which it couldn’t afford. They say Howrey failed to stay on top of how the legal market was changing during the recession.
Though the 40-lawyer group survived the Thelen dissolution intact, they weren’t able to stay together this time. Ness and O’Brien have landed in Jones Day’s DC office. Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman picked up several construction partners, including David Dekker, Jeffrey Gans, Melissa Lesmes, and Michael McNamara. David Mancini and James Newland Jr. joined Seyfarth Shaw’s Washington office.
This article first appeared in the April 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.