Blue Bell, Pa.-based insurance defense firm Stewart Bernstiel & Rebar has changed its name to Stewart Bernstiel Rebar & Smith with the addition of Michael J. Smith as a shareholder from Cozen O’Connor.
Joining Smith at the firm is Bryan Petrilla, who comes to Stewart Bernstiel as a partner.
According to Stewart Bernstiel managing partner Cathleen Kelly Rebar, Smith, as a shareholder and name partner, has an equity interest in the firm, while Petrilla, as a partner, does not.
Both Smith and Petrilla were members at Cozen O’Connor.
The move comes on the heels of the announcement that San Francisco-based Gordon & Rees is planning to open a Philadelphia office with eight partners from Cozen O’Connor’s insurance and commercial litigation teams.
Stewart Bernstiel principal William F. Stewart said Smith brings a significant book of business and a national reputation in complex insurance litigation to the firm, noting that there "was really no question" whether Smith would be made a name partner.
"We didn’t go looking to expand," Stewart said. "There are just very few people who share our values the way Mike did. He has a tremendous work ethic and is really respected not just in the region but throughout the country as a premier insurance coverage litigator."
Smith said he’s known and worked with Stewart, firm principal Cynthia Bernstiel and several other members of the firm for years, so in a lot of ways joining Stewart Bernstiel felt like "coming home."
"A lot of the people I’ve come to consider as being part of the same team are already here," Smith said, adding that he was drawn to the firm’s "highly-specialized expertise" in insurance coverage defense.
Stewart said Smith’s and Petrilla’s practice fits nicely with both his own practice, which centers on complex coverage litigation, and Rebar’s practice, which focuses largely on professional liability defense.
Smith said he and Petrilla also have experience in insurance bad-faith defense, which has become an increasingly prominent portion of their practices recently.
"One of the things that I think is becoming more and more of a focus for my clients is extra-contractual/bad-faith exposure," Smith said, explaining that the exposure in those cases "can be astronomical."
"That’s where you really get some huge verdicts," he said.
Smith said that in addition to the many relationships he already had at Stewart Bernstiel, he was also attracted to the firm’s attentiveness to its clients’ strategic goals on a case-by-case basis, noting that it’s important for litigators to know when to, for example, resolve a case through mediation or settlement rather than take it to trial and vice versa.
And while some attorneys who leave large firms for smaller shops worry that they’ll lose the support necessary to tackle large matters, both Smith and Petrilla said that was never a concern for them because Stewart Bernstiel’s depths of expertise belies its size.
"I previously was at Reed Smith, which was close to 1,600 attorneys, and then I came to Cozen, which had about 600 attorneys," Petrilla said. "Having gone through both of those experiences, I’ve found that you really end up working with an intimate group of people."
Besides, Stewart said, the firm is not all that small when you consider all of its attorneys have a similar focus, adding that he believes his firm offers litigators the "best of both worlds."
"We have the efficiencies of a small-to-midsized firm, but we also have 13 people doing insurance coverage work now," Stewart said. "That’s a robust practice. You always have backup, you always have support."
Stewart Bernstiel formed last August when Stewart, Bernstiel and Rebar left Blue Bell-based insurance defense firm Nelson Levine de Luca & Hamilton along with associates Patrick Duffy and Danielle Sivert.
Former solo attorney George McClellan also joined the firm as head of its Princeton, N.J., office.
Stewart said at the time that the goal of the firm was to "have a lean but effective overhead structure" that allowed it to save money and to pass those savings along to clients, while continuing to offer a broad range of insurance and defense services.
Since then, the firm has added seven more attorneys and, in addition to Blue Bell and Princeton, has a location in Manhattan.
"The marketplace has been very kind to us and very receptive of our platform," Rebar said.
Rebar said the firm plans to continue to grow and is aiming to expand its Manhattan office in the near future.
Meanwhile, Gordon & Rees announced Friday that it had hired away three senior members of Cozen O’Connor’s insurance and commercial litigation groups. William Shelley, the former chairman of Cozen O’Connor’s insurance group, and partners Ann Thornton Field and Josh Wall will join the new firm along with Cozen O’Connor partners Joseph A. Arnold, Jacob C. Cohn, C. Tyler Havey, James E. Robinson and Catherine Slavin. Shelley will serve as managing partner of the new office.
Michael J. Heller, chief executive officer of Cozen O’Connor, told The Legal on Tuesday that Smith and Petrilla’s departures were unrelated to the group’s move to Gordon & Rees.
Heller said it was his understanding that Smith and Petrilla left because they wanted to work with friends of theirs at a boutique firm.