Thompson Hine continues its growth push in Atlanta with the recruitment of two longtime Atlanta lawyers. Peter Coffman joined from Dow Lohnes as a partner and Aaron Watson joined from Barnes & Thornburg as senior counsel.
Coffman, a trial lawyer, was at Dow Lohnes for almost 17 years, after working for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Division in the early 1990s. A major Dow Lohnes client, Cox Enterprises, sparked a shake-up in the firm’s Atlanta office when it announced in June that it would continue using Dow Lohnes lawyers, but only if they moved to other firms. (The firm’s Washington office announced in October that it is merging with Cooley, effective Jan. 1.)
Watson, a corporate lawyer, has been an Atlanta city councilman since 2010, serving as the Post 2 at-large member, but he just lost his seat in a hotly contested race to Mary Norwood, who gave up the post four years ago for an unsuccessful mayoral bid against Kasim Reed.
With the additions of Coffman and Watson, Thompson Hine has added eight laterals in Atlanta this year, giving the office 30 lawyers. “Both of these lawyers are fixtures in the Atlanta market and extremely well-regarded by peers and clients,” said Thompson Hines’ Atlanta partner-in-charge, Russ Rogers.
Even though the overall demand for corporate legal services remains sluggish, Rogers said Thompson Hine plans to keep adding to its Atlanta office and is seeing an uptick in demand. “We’ve gotten an increased share of a decreased market,” he said, which he attributed to clients’ perception that Thompson Hine offers good value.
“As long as our growth is strategic, we need to continue to expand in this environment. There are people who for one reason or another are looking for a different situation, so there are opportunities,” Rogers said.
Coffman augments the office’s litigation bench and Watson’s corporate and government experience were a draw, Rogers said. “We’re interested in the public-private intersection at the city, county and, to a lesser extent, state level—not lobbying but the transactions that occur at that intersection. Aaron has exceptional experience in that area.”
Watson has also served as a commissioner for the Atlanta Housing Authority and on the Atlanta Board of Education. He was a board member of the Atlanta Development Authority (now Invest Atlanta) for a decade, from 1990 to 2000.
Right now, Watson said, he is focusing on his law practice.
A corporate finance lawyer, Watson has practiced law in Atlanta for almost 30 years, handling financing, acquisitions, dispositions and public-private partnerships. He declined to name clients but said they include a local, privately owned parking company and a bank-holding company headquartered outside the state.
“I was attracted by the collection of great talent that Russ is putting together here, including some folks I’ve worked with along the way in my career,” he said of his move to Thompson Hine. “I was really impressed. It’s a fantastic platform to grow my practice from.”
Watson said he’d worked with several Thompson Hine lawyers at other firms, including Michael Coleman and Roy Hadley Jr. Both joined Thompson Hine earlier this year—Coleman from EpsteinBeckerGreen’s now-defunct Atlanta office and Hadley from Barnes & Thornburg. Watson and Coleman worked together at Trotter, Smith & Jacobs two decades ago.
Coffman said he decided Thompson Hine is a good fit for his business litigation practice, representing plaintiffs and defendants in disputes over real estate, insurance coverage and “plenty of UCC priority disputes—chasing people who don’t pay on contracts.”
“I look forward to serving Cox and other clients from my new platform at Thompson Hine,” he added.
In a case that’s garnered national news coverage, Coffman is representing the bankruptcy trustee for Decker College, which was a Louisville-based, for-profit provider of occupational education.
Decker closed and then filed for bankruptcy in 2005 after the U.S. Department of Education terminated its eligibility for federal student financial aid. The federal agency’s decision was based on statements by the college’s accreditor, the Council on Occupational Education, that Decker had offered online programs in carpentry, electrical and heating/refrigeration work without the council’s approval.
Last year, a federal bankruptcy judge in Kentucky ruled that the council’s representations to the Education Department were false, and that the accrediting agency knew the programs were being offered online and had approved them. “This misrepresentation is absolutely what destroyed Decker,” Coffman told Inside Higher Ed last year.
The Council on Occupational Education has appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Alston & Bird is one of the firms representing the Atlanta-based accrediting agency.
About 100 schools offer similar online construction skills courses now, Coffman said. “Everybody thought it was weird in 2005.”
Of his move, Coffman said he sought a firm with a strong business litigation practice that valued client service, noting that Thompson Hine ranked sixth in BTI Consulting Group’s 2013 in-house counsel survey.
“A lot of good people have come here and they’ve grown a lot in this market, which is attractive,” Coffman said.