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SWIDLER BERLIN LOSES 14 ENERGY ATTORNEYS WASHINGTON � Swidler Berlin is losing some wattage. Last week, 14 energy attorneys announced they were leaving for 650-lawyer Alston & Bird. The group is led by one of Swidler’s founding partners, Steven Agresta, and Kenneth Jaffe. Along with four other partners, they’ll depart with two sizable utility clients: National Grid USA and California Independent System Operator Corp. Alston & Bird’s D.C. Managing Partner Frank Conner says the firm is “thrilled” with the acquisition, particularly since the recently passed energy bill is expected to spur investment in that sector. The move is a significant blow to Swidler: Not only do the departing attorneys account for roughly 10 percent of the lawyers at the firm, but they leave Swidler with just a single energy regulatory partner. That’s a remarkable development for a firm that was founded in 1982 as an energy boutique by Joseph Swidler, now deceased, and Edward Berlin, two former chairmen of the Federal Power Commission. Agresta says the decision to move was spurred by the desire to be part of a larger firm, and had nothing to do with Swidler’s performance or management. But three sources with knowledge of the firm suggest the energy practice’s waning clout in firm management played a role, particularly since the retirement of Edward Berlin as firm chairman in 2002. “I think they have felt that they have been treated as stepchildren for quite a while,” says one former partner, who asked not to be named. That was evidenced last fall when Swidler’s management entered into merger discussions with Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky, even though the energy practice had significant client conflicts with Dickstein’s energy group. � Legal Times ATTORNEY MUST GIVE BACK CLIENT’S PASSPORT NEW YORK � A Staten Island, N.Y., judge has ordered an attorney to return the passport of her Sri Lankan client, comparing the lawyer’s refusal to give back the passport until she is paid her fees to holding the client hostage. “[T]here are numerous enforcement mechanisms present in the CPLR, available to the claimant, which do not make the defendant a ‘prisoner’ in the United States unable to return to her native country,” Civil Court Judge Philip Straniere wrote in Bonner v. Goonewardene, an unreported Small Claims decision. “Claimant is in effect making the defendant an ‘indentured servant.’” In Bonner, the attorney initiated an action against her client, claiming the client had failed to pay $4,500 in outstanding fees for services rendered in a custody proceeding. The attorney had taken possession of the passports during the custody proceeding, when the judge instructed her to hold them to ensure her client’s attendance. The attorney claimed that the passports comprised a lien against the client’s debt, citing as precedent the unreported Southern District of New York case, United States v. Bakhtiar, 1997 WL 573408. In Bakhtiar, the court held that it saw “nothing unethical or shocking” about an attorney retaining a passport as security for payment of a fee. That court, however, declined such a lien, holding that the “passport was neither expressly nor impliedly pledged as security for payment.” Straniere disagreed with Bakhtiar’s reasoning. “Allowing an attorney to retain a passport in order to enforce a claim for legal fees is patently unfair and allows an individual to act as the equivalent of a government and restrict the movements of the foreign citizen,” he wrote. � New York Law Journal

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