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The past year hasn’t exactly been a boom time for Philadelphia-area law firms, but one local boutique, many of whose attorneys cut their teeth working at some of the city’s largest firms, has managed to post steady growth for 2003 by keeping overhead low and concentrating on its specialty area of the law. Environmental firm Langsam Stevens & Silver currently boasts nine attorneys — up from five last year. Seven of the firm’s current workforce specialize in environmental law. Partner Mark Stevens, previously a Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll associate, said that the roots of the firm’s 1995 formation run deep. “Hank Langsam and I go back to the sandbox,” Stevens said. Langsam and Stevens kept in touch throughout their careers, with Stevens going from environmental engineering consulting to environmental litigation, and Langsam switching from community legal services work to a general practice. After Stevens left Ballard Spahr, they decided to combine their talents and start their own firm. The pair received a big boost this past spring when former Duane Morris partner Larry Silver came on board, bringing several corporate clients with him. Silver and Stevens knew of each other through the environmental law community and bonded while hiking together with their families in Acadia National Park in Maine. Silver said that being partners in their own firm had long been a topic of discussion between the two. “It was always something that was in the back of our minds,” Silver said. “We had chatted about it periodically over the years.” Both commented that their firm’s viability boils down to one concept: flexibility. “My practice is essentially the equivalent of the big firms’ environmental practices in terms of my clients,” Silver said, “but as a firm, we do have the advantage of being able to market to smaller companies and individuals, as well as representing insureds for insurance companies at a lower billing rate. We have that flexibility when we need it. There are definitely clients that I could not market to at the big firm that I am able to now because of the flexibility of lower overhead … you can take certain risks when you have less overhead.” “There are some benefits that come with being small,” Stevens agreed. “For us to make a decision, it’s three partners that have to get their heads together. We don’t have to send out e-mails all across the country and the world to convene a meeting of hundreds of partners. We can just decide.” Silver said that besides saving on office space and electricity compared to a big firm’s expenditures, they also use technology to do for themselves what big firms use whole departments to handle — services like research, billing and accounting. “It used to be very difficult to get your hands on EPA policy documents and memoranda,” Silver said. “If you had them, it was like gold. But those items slowly started to get published with more frequency in periodicals, and then the EPA finally got its act together and started publishing its stuff on the Internet. So that is something that tends to favor the smaller firms and the individual person at a desk with a computer.” In addition, Silver said, the firm has hired information systems consultant Michael Einbinder-Schatz of Jobecca Technology Group, who helps them set up computer programs for billing and accounting that the attorneys can operate themselves. “I can pick up the phone and call him whenever I need to,” Silver said. “For example, a big client just asked if they could transfer their billing arrangement from paper billing to an electronic system. I called [Michael], and he’ll get on it.” Silver, who wouldn’t name his clients but said that they include Fortune 500 companies, noted that low overhead can help a small firm but can’t solve all of its problems. “If you speak to the in-house lawyers that I deal with, whether it’s in environmental law or other areas, the primary thing they’re looking for is quality work,” Silver said. “If we can’t provide the high quality of work they’re looking for, being able to adjust on fees is not going to help.” But Stevens, who also has a degree in environmental engineering, said that the firm’s low rates have helped him cater his practice, at least in part, to insureds who need environmental representation. “We are able to charge less than the big firms,” Stevens said. “The insurance carriers know that, and they can’t pay the rates that would allow the big firms to keep the lights on.” Stevens also said that the firm’s low fees make it attractive to municipalities. He said that the firm handles work for a number of New Jersey municipalities, mainly in cases involving landfills. They also handle petroleum contamination and Superfund matters. However, the firm knows when a case is beyond its scope, Stevens said. “If there’s a business matter that requires a high level of corporate and real estate involvement, then probably a big firm would be better for that client,” Stevens said. “If it’s really complex or really big, then obviously, we can’t throw 20 lawyers at a single case.” But both said that maintaining good relationships with the larger firms in the city is essential to their business. “When anyone leaves a firm, for whatever reason, it’s in everybody’s interest to continue with the relationship … to essentially be an alumni of your old firm,” Silver said. “I think that big firms have moved into an understanding that they can create an alumni list … and there can be referral relationships back and forth. That’s something that everybody wants to maintain.” Stevens agreed. “We’ve been the recipient of referrals where a big firm may have conflicts, and may be reluctant to refer a client to another big firm,” Stevens said. “The big firms know that we’re not a threat to them,” added Cynthia Weiss, another former Ballard Spahr associate, who joined the firm as a part-time employee last year. She said that the firm’s fluid structure allows her to practice and have time left over to care for her two young children. “It’s definitely easier being a working parent at a small firm,” Weiss said. “We work more in a team approach, so that if my schedule doesn’t allow me to go to an all-day deposition, then someone else can help out with that. At a big firm, I think, you have more responsibilities to handle.” Weiss also noted that oversight of one’s cases is markedly different in a smaller setting. “I like small firms because you have more control over your own matters,” she said, “you see them from start to finish, and you direct their course, whereas at a big firm, you might have two or three hierarchical levels [above you].” Silver also noted the change in atmosphere. “There’s very much a family atmosphere here,” Silver said. Full-time additions to the “family” in the past year include environmental attorneys Deborah Hogan, from Archer & Greiner in Haddonfield, and Paul Schmidt, from Drinker Biddle & Reath. “Growth is not always that easy,” Stevens said. “I wouldn’t mind continuing to grow, I just hope that it would be manageable.”

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