A founding partner of the litigation boutique known until March 30 as Ashe Rafuse & Hill, R. Lawrence Ashe, said his law partners’ efforts to force him into retirement spurred the 72-year-old litigator to leave the firm instead.
But managing partner and co-founder Nancy Rafuse denied any such pressure, saying that she and the other name partners of what is now Rafuse, Hill & Hodges were surprised last month when Ashe announced his intention to resign.
"Actually, Lawrence’s decision was made entirely by Lawrence," said Rafuse. "We do everything by consensus here."
On Monday, Ashe took on a position a senior counsel at Parker, Hudson, Rainer & Dobbs. Although eager to take on his new duties, Ashe said the decision to leave his old firm was not one he wanted to make.
"I established that firm more than 10 years ago as its first chair," said Ashe. "I regret leaving."
Describing himself as "baffled and disappointed," Ashe said he had little choice in the matter.
"The firm told me I had to retire in 2014," said Ashe. "They told me I was leaving active practice next year, and I would be practicing at diminished compensation this year."
"I’m not remotely interested in retiring. I love the practice of law, I have a very active practice, and I’m very active in civic matters," Ashe said. "But there were four equity partners," he said—himself, Rafuse, William Hill Jr. and Kenneth Hodges III—"and they had the votes."
Ashe said discussions aimed at easing him out began late last year, primarily by Rafuse, although he said Hill was privy to some of the meetings.
"Nancy Refuse is in total control of that firm," said Ashe from his new office on Monday. "I believe their hope was that I would retire, and leave my clients, my name and my art—I had about a quarter-million dollars in art there. It’s at my home and here now."
"I’m certainly taking my clients with me," he added.
A letter Ashe circulated to friends dated March 28 said the "primary, but not exclusive, reason for my leaving ARH is that I was being required to retire from ARH in 2014. I enjoy excellent health and do not wish to retire. Many clients and peers have expressly urged me to continue to practice, and I also very much value my bar and civic activities."
Ashe’s effective departure date was Saturday, March 30; his first day at Parker Hudson was Monday, April 1.
Over the weekend, the Ashe Rafuse website was changed to reflect the firm’s new name: Rafuse, Hill & Hodges. A former Dougherty County district attorney, Hodges joined the firm after an unsuccessful run as Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2010.
On Monday, Rafuse and Hodges disavowed any plan to force Ashe out. Rafuse said the first indication she had that Ashe was leaving was when he presented the partners with a letter on March 18 announcing his intention to leave the firm.
Asked whether she had been having discussions about seeking Ashe’s retirement with him for the past few months, Rafuse said no.
"He came in March 18, said he’d made this decision, and told us about it. It was a path he decided to take."
"We’ve never taken a vote on anything except whether to admit a new partner," she said.
Hodges, too, said he was not aware of any discussions about forcing Ashe out.
Asked again whether Ashe had been told he would have to retire in 2014, Rafuse again said no.
"I don’t know what else to tell you," she said.
Ashe scoffed when apprised of Rafuse’s comments.
"For Christ’s sake, why am I going to leave the firm I founded, that has my name on it?" he asked. "In the first place, Ken wasn’t in any of these meetings, so he doesn’t know. Hill was there for some of them. I offered to mediate it on at least a half-dozen occasions; I tried very hard to make it work. When I suggested mediation, she said, ‘No, that’ll just give you a platform.’"
"It defies all logic that I would do this voluntarily," Ashe said. "I was very proud of what that firm has achieved."
Ashe said Rafuse was "technically correct" that no vote was ever taken on his future with the firm.
"I never gave them a chance to vote on it," he said. "I saw the inevitable."
The firm began in 2003, when Ashe and Rafuse left Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker to set up a employment and civil rights boutique. The following year, another Paul Hastings partner, one-time Fulton County State and Superior Court Judge William Hill Jr., also jumped to the firm.
The firm grew to as many as 25 lawyers at one time, Ashe said. Rafuse said it now employs 16 attorneys.
Ashe said he looked forward to his new duties at Parker Hudson.
"I’ll be full-time senior counsel at one of Atlanta’s premier mid-size firms," he said, noting that he’ll be serving alongside a half-dozen of his former Paul Hastings colleagues as well.
"I’m told [the partners] voted unanimously to bring me aboard, so I’m very proud of that," he said.
Parker Hudson managing partner G. Wayne Hillis Jr. declared himself delighted with the new hire, citing Ashe’s 45 years of legal experience. Hillis said Ashe would bring a depth of experience and prestige to the 75-lawyer firm’s employment and civil rights practice.
"We’re excited to get a guy of Lawrence’s stature and reputation, and the opportunity he brings," said Hillis. "It’s not like hiring a lateral associate because you need some help; it’s more about the clients he can bring to the table."
Ashe said that his final days at his old firm were tense but not "openly acrimonious."
"I wish them well," he said. "I still have my capital account there, so I have a financial interest in their success, and many of them are—and I hope will remain—good friends."
On Tuesday Ashe said he’d been contacted by individuals who had called his old firm trying to reach him.
"Three people have reported that they called for me at my old firm and were told if they wanted my phone number, they could find it on the Internet," he said. "I’ve sent an email complaining that this violated my exit agreement, but I’ve not yet gotten a response."
When the Daily Report called and asked for Ashe, the receptionist said he no longer worked there and that she did not have a phone number for him.
Greg Land is a reporter for the Daily Report, a Legal affiliate based in Atlanta.