About five miles separate downtown Bridgeport and Stratford, Conn. But for labor and employment law partners Robert Mitchell and Margaret Sheahan, it's a world away.
With about 60 years combined legal experience, the longtime colleagues left lofty positions at Pullman & Comley in Bridgeport to open their own two-lawyer firm along the banks of the Housatonic River in mid-January.
It's a shockingly different atmosphere at Mitchell & Sheahan, where the partners do everything from sanding down and refinishing the mahogany table in the conference room to making sure the coffee pot is cleaned out every night.
"This is a refreshing change, and that's one of the things I'm enjoying about this," said Mitchell, who has known Sheahan since 1987 when they practiced together at a 12-lawyer firm in Bridgeport.
"We're answering our own phones now," Sheahan said with a laugh.
Sheahan said a lot of friends questioned the logic of leaving Pullman & Comley where she had practiced for the past seven years and had been chair of the firm's labor and employment practice group. That group included Mitchell, a seasoned partner-level trial attorney who has taken 60 cases to verdict.
"I think we can capitalize on the needs of businesses out there," Sheahan said. "We deal with a market segment different from Pullman & Comley that couldn't be supported with the rates we were charging."
Mitchell added that their departure created "no ill will" with Pullman & Comley. "They've already referred two cases over to me," he said.
Mitchell & Sheahan caters mainly to Connecticut-based small businesses and individuals seeking labor and employment attorneys who have extensive trial experience. The firm will also pair up with other small firms that need trial help in various practice areas but don't want to refer the case to a larger firm for fear of losing the client.
Mitchell noticed that the small business practice never was a great fit at Pullman & Comley, which now has 77 lawyers, dating to the time that he and Sheahan joined the firm in 2001.
When economic times were good, clients didn't say much, Mitchell noted, but "the expense of running a large firm forced rates too high" when small companies started losing business over the past couple of years.
"Clients asking for lower rates became a constant conversation," Mitchell said. "We intended to take action before we lost [any clients]. There's a lot of fee pressure on everyone, not just Pullman & Comley."
Mitchell & Sheahan's smaller size allows for rates that are one-quarter to one-third lower than those at Pullman & Comley. It also allows for more non-billable hour fee arrangements.
"One thing we all look at is that business clients would like some certainty," Sheahan said. "The open-ended nature of the billable hour is disconcerting to a lot of clients. That's a difficult transition for a lot of attorneys to make."
Russell Savrann readily embraced that type of flexibility. He recently jumped from a Seattle-based regional law firm specializing in hotels and resorts to start the three-lawyer firm of Sandman Savrann PLLC, which has an office in New Haven, Conn.
Savrann joined Irvin Sandman, with whom Savrann practiced in Seattle, to launch Sandman Savrann last month. The new firm, which also focuses exclusively on hotels and the hospitality industry, has taken advantage of remote access technology to set up its three partners in virtual office spaces in Connecticut, Washington state and Arizona. It also has formed associations with small firms in Boston and Seattle to act as of counsel firms that can provide nearly 30 additional lawyers on big deals.
"We can't close a $50 million deal with three people," said Savrann, who spent more than a decade as lead in-house counsel for The Ground Round Inc. and Starwood Hotels & Resorts. "It's a structure that turns a typical law firm on its head."
Most of the legal work last year focused on restructuring bank loans as the value of hotels dropped 50 percent. But Savrann is noticing that banks are starting to lend again for major hotel projects, and a firm with the experience and size of Sandman Savrann could be in prime position to strike, he said.
"We're selling the fact that we can be flexible with our fees," Savrann said last week from an international hotel investment conference in San Diego. "It's been very well received."