Roy Hofer celebrated his 78th birthday Thursday—a day after launching his own solo shop and a month after leaving the firm that was his professional home for more than 50 years.
A veteran intellectual property lawyer and past president of the Chicago Bar Association, Hofer was until last month a name partner at the Chicago-based IP boutique long known as Brinks, Hofer, Gilson & Lione, having joined one of its predecessor firms in 1961.
Hofer, Brinks Hofer’s president from 1995 to 1999, resigned from the 150-lawyer firm abruptly on September 9 in a move that, as reported at the time by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, capped a nearly two-year battle pitting him and three other longtime partners against top management.
“The firm’s new management is inconsistent with my values,” Hofer told The Am Law Daily on Thursday when asked to explain why he left the Brinks Hofer partnership to establish his own practice. “We had a fabulous tradition of loyalty to our shareholders and staff, but the culture changed where money became the only thing of importance.”
In Hofer’s view, his ties to Brinks Hofer—a 96-year-old firm that since his departure has rebranded itself as Brinks Gilson & Lione—began to fray when management decided in late 2011 to drop nine partners over the age of 65 from the firm’s health insurance plan.
“They basically decided that seniors who weren’t working enough hours were not entitled to be covered under the firm’s basic health insurance plan,” Hofer says. “Never had anyone been kicked out of the plan over hours.”
Hofer and Brinks Hofer partners Henry Brinks, Jack Berenzweig, and Jerold Jacover hired lawyers and insurance consultants to press the firm to restore their medical coverage. (As noted by the Daily Law Bulletin, James Figliulo and Jill Berkeley of Chicago’s Figliulo & Silverman and Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg represented the four partners.)
Hofer says Brinks Hofer’s health insurance carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, asked the firm last October to add the four partners—as well as the five other older partners who didn’t object or hire counsel when their coverage was yanked—back to its health plan. Nonetheless, Hofer says tensions between himself and firm management lingered.
As for his fellow dissidents, Brinks and Berenzweig chose to stay with the firm, but Jacover—Brinks Hofer’s president from 2000 to 2005—left last week to become an IP of counsel in the Chicago office of Foley & Lardner. He declined to comment about why he made the move.
The boutique—which in addition to its Chicago base has outposts in Detroit, Indianapolis, North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, Salt Lake City, Washington, D.C., and Ann Arbor, Michigan—has been led since last year by partner James Sobieraj.
Sobieraj, who joined Brinks Hofer in 1982, made partner five years later, and now holds the title of president, tells The Am Law Daily he is saddened by the departures of some of his longtime colleagues. At the same time, he points out that only Hofer and Jacover have left and that the seven other affected partners have accepted the health plan changes and stuck with the newly renamed firm.
“Roy had no billing requirements or minimal hours, and as far as I was concerned he had earned that right,” Sobieraj says. “But we had an obligation to make correct representations to our insurance company and apply proper business practices.”
In a lengthy statement provided to The Am Law Daily by Brinks Gilson, the firm maintained that while it appreciates Hofer’s achievements, it disagrees with his characterization of the circumstances that prompted him to leave.
Brinks Gilson claims that under its health insurance policy, a full-time employee is one regularly scheduled to work 30 or more hours per week. Longtime employees not scheduled to work at least that many hours are considered “retirees.” Under that designation they are expected to tap Medicare as their primary insurer, and turn to the firm’s health plan only to cover anything Medicare does not pay for.
While acknowledging that Hofer objected to being placed in the retiree category, Brinks Gilson claims that after consulting with its health insurance adviser, it kept Hofer on its insurance plan while the firm “continued to pay the same share of his premium as other employees.”
Sobieraj, 56, says he and Brinks Gilson’s board of directors did not apply the different employee classifications to those covered by the firm’s insurance plan simply to cut costs. He also maintains that the firm paid slightly more for Hofer’s insurance coverage during the time he remained on its plan.
Hofer, now ensconced at The Law Offices of Roy E. Hofer, which has its offices in both Chicago and a Windy City suburb, calls the firm’s decision to move nine senior partners off its insurance rolls “penny wise, pound foolish.” He notes that Brinks Gilson now must incur the additional costs of rebranding to scrub his name from its shingle.
“There are still firms that adhere to a culture of loyalty to their partners, and there are those that do not,” Hofer says, recalling a speech he used to give to Brinks Hofer summer associates in which he advised them they were joining the wrong firm if all they wanted was cash in on their law degree. “Money can’t be the only thing that’s important.”
Sobieraj agrees with that assessment, but says that the trend among law firms and those who lead them today is to run their partnerships more like businesses and make way for the next generation of lawyers and staffers. (When asked whether Brinks Gilson or the firms it grew out of have ever been approached by would-be merger partners, Sobieraj says yes, adding that the firm is not currently involved in any tie-up talks.)
“Firm management at [Brinks Gilson] has always sought to act in the best interests of all our employees,” the firm said in the statement issued in response to Hofer’s assertions. “As we look to the future, the firm remains committed to upholding those interests.”
Brinks Hofer’s head count had steadily risen before dipping in recent years. In 2009 the firm had 170 lawyers and for the first time made sibling publication The National Law Journal‘s annual list of the nation’s largest 250 firms. The NLJ has since expanded its list to 350 firms, and according to the most recent survey Brinks Hofer had 146 lawyers in 2012.
This summer, Brinks Hofer partner Glen Belvis left the firm for Steptoe & Johnson’s Chicago office to join former Brinks Hofer partners Meredith “Mimi” Addy, Thomas Filarski, and Mark Remus, who left for Steptoe in 2011.
Nonetheless, Sobieraj says Brinks Gilson remains positioned well for the future, although he declined to name the outside lawyers the firm has consulted with on its dispute with Hofer. (Sobieraj says the firm is Brinks Gilson’s standing outside counsel.)
Hofer, meanwhile, says it “remains to be seen” whether litigation might yet arise in connection with the health insurance dispute. Right now he’s focused on setting up his own firm, an enterprise that will allow Hofer to continue serving as a mediator in arbitration proceedings, while also working as a consultant on patent and trademark appellate issues.
“Maybe they didn’t expect me to leave,” Hofer says, “but I felt it was something I had to do.”