January 9, 2020 from the Albany Business Review
Robin K. Cooper – Reporter

Change is the New Rule of Law

Three trial attorneys and former shareholders at one of Albany’s oldest law firms have started a new practice less than a month after Carter Conboy Case Blackmore Maloney & Laird closed suddenly, ending a century-old business.

“Six months ago, we had no idea this was coming,” said Adam Cooper, who formed a new firm this week with Mackenzie Monaco and Brian Carr. “We had to move quickly.”

Their new firm, Monaco Cooper and Carr, will add a fourth founding partner, Jacob Lamme, who is leaving McNamee Lochner this month.

“We see an opportunity because there are not a lot of young, experienced trial attorneys in this region,” Cooper said.

The dissolution of Carter Conboy last month marked the end of an era for a firm that started practicing law in Albany the same year that Prohibition started and the United States granted women the right to vote. The firm’s closing sent 30 attorneys and a 20-person staff of administrators and paralegals scrambling to find work in the region’s highly competitive legal market. The 11-county area’s 25 largest firms employ more than 650 attorneys. Albany County, the focal point of New York state government, has the second-highest concentration of attorneys in the state. Only Manhattan, New York County, has more.

The sudden closure of Carter Conboy is the latest in a string of changes in Albany’s legal market over the past year as firms with large immigration and lobbying practices took a hit with partners leaving to join other firms. Then in late September, personal injury and criminal defense firm Dreyer Boyajian LaMarche Safranko split into two firms, eight months after a merger.

Whiteman Osterman and Hanna LLP, the region’s largest law firm, spent last year rebuilding its immigration practice after L.J. D’Arrigo, the partner who headed the fast-growing immigration unit, left the firm to join Harris Beach last winter.

Jackson Lewis had a similar disruption in September when managing principal Lisa Marrello moved her lobbying practice to become managing director of former U.S. Sen. Alphonse D’Amato’s firm, Park Strategies LLC.

“There is no doubt the legal market is shifting and there is no singular reason for it,” said Christian Soller, managing partner of Hodgson Russ’s Albany and Saratoga practices.

One factor fueling the change is that more clients are demanding more work in a shorter time for a lower cost, he said.

“There are a lot more instances where legal services are going to the lowest bidder,” Adam Cooper said. “That is putting pressure on the larger firms with more overhead … That is why we are focusing on skills that cannot be commoditized.”

That is why Monaco Cooper and Carr is positioning its practice to focus on commercial litigation, malpractice, risk management, as well as labor and employment law.

Several regional law firms, including Hodgson Russ, Bond Schoeneck & King, Harris Beach and Greenberg Traurig have become aggressive about recruiting young associates and seasoned attorneys over the past two years.

Associates at two area firms say they receive unsolicited calls from recruiters at least once a week.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if more regional firms try to enter this market over the next few years,” said John Henry, co-managing partner of Whiteman Osterman and Hanna.

Whiteman has managed to remain competitive by growing its base of local clients as well as those in Manhattan and other large metropolitan areas who are searching for help in several areas, including mergers and acquisitions. The attraction, Henry said, is that Whiteman can offer services for sophisticated deals at less than half the cost of large New York City firms that charge anywhere from $900 to $1,000 per hour.

Another shift occurring in the legal market is that fewer attorneys are following the traditional path of becoming an associate and working their way up to partner and going on to spend their career at one firm.

Attorney Sarah Delaney Vero started her career at Whiteman in 2005 and spent three years with the firm before starting her own practice. Today, she runs Delaney Vero in Rensselaer with her husband, John Vero, who worked for Whiteman for six years and Couch White for 11 years before joining Delaney Vero in 2018.

Having the freedom to spend more time with clients without the pressure of billable-hour requirements at larger firms is attractive for attorneys and clients, said Delaney Vero, who focuses her practice on labor and employment law.

“Larger firms like Bond and Whiteman will endure, but I think there are a lot of people out there like John and I,” Delaney Vero said. “This might be part of a natural progression that we see in our industry.”

Vero, who represents companies with real estate financing, insurance and litigation issues, said it is much easier in a small, independent practice to spend time advising clients about business decisions if you don’t have to worry about accounting for every hour of the day.

“There are a lot of successful regional firms moving in, but you are going to see more smaller firms out there over the next few years,” he said.

Adam Cooper of Monaco Cooper and Carr said those dynamics are forcing the traditional law firm structure to change. He is developing a system where his new firm will be able to charge a flat monthly rate for handling employment issues, contracts and other services to help keep client expenses under control.

“I understand the need for predictability,” Cooper said. “Other firms are doing this and I think you are going to see more of it.”

The key to success, Cooper said, will be the ability to respond quickly as growth opportunities arise and client needs continue to evolve.

“There is a need to be more nimble,” he said. “I think you are going to see other firms do what we are doing.”