Stryker, Tams & Dill, a 113-year-old Newark, N.J., firm that once numbered among New Jersey's largest, closed its doors for good on Aug. 1.
Its sumptuous 12th-floor offices at Two Penn Plaza East are vacant, as most of its vestigial nine lawyers packed up this summer to join Scarinci & Hollenbeck in Lyndhurst, N.J.
The only personnel remaining of a storied firm that once rivaled McCarter & English and Pitney Hardin and represented some of the state's major corporations is an administrator charged with winding up the business.
The final demise was anticlimactic, as the firm had been declining for 25 years, dogged by a host of troubles: cherry-picking by out-of-state firms, an inability to compete with regional firms, a leadership style that appeared to some as weak, ineffective marketing, poor business decisions and an apparent reluctance to adapt to practice-area and other changes in the legal profession.
The end was hastened by the expansion into New Jersey of out-of-state firms that aggressively courted local talent. "A lot of fine Stryker Tams lawyers got picked off," says recruiter David Garber of Princeton Legal Search Group. "The firm remained highly regarded. It was just never able to rebuild the critical mass to the point it was previously. At the end of the day, I don't think they were able to compete with the regional firms -- there was just a brain drain."
Founded in 1898 by Richard Lindabury, a formidable corporate lawyer who represented and, in fact, incorporated U.S. Steel, the firm was originally known as Lindabury, Depue and Faulks. Early in the 20th century it recruited James Tams and Josiah Stryker, the latter a top New Jersey litigator who would become the firm's driving force. A Republican and member of the Essex Club of Newark, who served on corporate boards like Prudential's, Stryker personified the firm's "white shoe" image.
Burtis S. Horner joined in 1926 and William Dill Jr. in 1928. The name changed to Stryker, Tams & Horner in 1944 and Stryker, Tams & Dill in 1961.
Through much of the last century, the firm was among the power elite of New Jersey law practice. It was home to former attorneys general like David Furman and former U.S. Attorneys like Robert Del Tufo (later a state attorney general). Many alumni moved to the federal bench, such as Garrett Brown Jr., John Lifland and Joseph Dickson, and the state bench, such as Edith Payne and Patricia Talbert.
But Josiah Stryker finally relinquished the helm in 1967, first to Dill, who ran it for a decade, and then, in 1978, to Burton W. Horner -- son of one of the former name partners. By the mid-1980s, the firm began a steady decline, suffering from a "revolving door" syndrome that many alumni attributed to Horner's lax management style and poor strategic planning. Mass defections occurred in 1984 -- which led to the formation of Bressler, Amery & Ross -- and 1986, when Del Tufo bolted for Hannock Weisman along with two partners and a book of corporate clients.
Horner resigned as managing partner in 1986, but by then the firm had begun a contraction from which it would never recover. From a high of 47 lawyers in 1985, the count dropped by steady attrition to 15 in 2010. By this spring, there were only nine lawyers left -- all prime targets for headhunters.
In March, partner Robert Marsico was approached by Stewart Cohen, of Topaz Attorney Search in Livingston, N.J., about a possible deal with Scarinci & Hollenbeck, for whom he has recruited attorneys. Cohen had suggested to managing partner Donald Scarinci that the Stryker Tams crew might help evolve his firm from a government-oriented practice to a full-service business firm.
Cohen says he impressed upon Marsico the advantages that being part of a larger firm would bring Stryker Tams' clients. "In this competitive environment, you've got to have a bigger mass to compete and you've got to be able to keep every piece of business you have with a given client and not refer anything out," Cohen told Marsico.
Marsico and his colleagues met with Scarinci, and a deal was struck. Joining Scarinci & Hollenbeck were Marsico, partners Dennis Linken, Harold Friedman and Charles Friedrich III; counsel Gary Cucchiara and Douglas Brierley; and associate Donovan Bezer.
Marsico, a real estate and commercial lawyer, and Linken, who represents telecommunications companies, joined as partners. Cucchiara (public entity law), Friedrich (real estate) and Friedman and Brierley (litigation) are counsel. Bezer is a litigation associate.
Not going along were partner John Rizzo and associate Lisa Besson Geraghty. Cohen says he does not know why, and they could not be reached for comment.
Though Scarinci declines comment about the new arrivals, Cohen says they bring an impressive book of business and an informal but extensive alumni network. He declines to be specific, but Stryker Tams' representative clients in the 2011 Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory include Bank of America, Comcast Corp., Home Depot, Mack-Cali, M&M Mars, Prudential Insurance Company of America, Sovereign Bank and Time Warner.
Most of the other lawyers who were with Stryker Tams until the end did not return calls or declined to comment.
Bennett Wasserman, who was counsel at Stryker Tams for nine years before leaving this past January, says the firm's single greatest mistake may have been failing to keep pace with the times. "The legal environment is changing so rapidly," he says. "Stryker had a very fine reputation, but I guess it's a testament to the nature of the changing practice of law and the need to think of yourself as being forward-thinking, rather than backward-thinking," he says.
The firm's efforts to grow fell flat. In 1985, the firm opened a Princeton office, but it failed to gain traction in that market. By 1988, the two lawyers hired to staff that office had left and the office was unattended and used only for occasional meetings.
In 1991, the firm moved its Newark headquarters from 33 Washington St. to a 35,000-square-foot floor at Two Penn Plaza East. But four years later, it subleased half the floor to another tenant.
More recently, the firm's decision to lease the entire floor turned into a liability on Aug. 5 when Essex County Superior Court Judge Thomas Vena dismissed a suit by Stryker Tams against New Jersey Transit.
The firm claimed that oral and written assurances from an official of the transit agency constituted a contract to renew its sublease, but Vena said there was no contract because the parties never agreed on a price.
Stryker Tams claimed that it renewed its lease in December 2006, at a price of $29 a square foot, based on New Jersey Transit's assurances it would renew its sublease.
But the transit agency moved out of the space in July 2007, and now Stryker Tams subleases the former New Jersey Transit space to another tenant at a rate of $19 a square foot.