As clients demand a broader range of legal services, more law firms are adding practice groups — even if that means gobbling up another entire firm.
In the latest example, Pullman & Comley has announced it is expanding its practices that represent school district and municipalities by hiring all but one member of the Hartford firm Sullivan Schoen Campane & Connon. The six attorneys at the 38-year-old firm, including William R. Connon and well-known school attorney Michael P. McKeon, are making the move to Pullman & Comley’s downtown Hartford office on Monday, June 3.
"We couldn’t be more excited, not only personally, but for our clients as well," McKeon said. "I’m not saying this as puffery; I don’t think we could have found a better firm to join."
Organizationally, the group will for the most part be part of Pullman’s labor and employment practice group, since much of what municipal and school attorneys do involves labor contracts and employment disputes. For many years, McKeon’s firm has been known one of the top four or five firms in Connecticut that represent school districts. For Pullman, acquiring the practice group expands the firm’s client base to include about one-third of the state’s school boards.
"This seems like a perfect fit. The attorneys that are joining us have a long history of representing school boards, and this will create a new type of service for our clients," said Robert Morris, chairman of Pullman & Comley. "We chose to add this group because they are good lawyers and they fit well with our goals. This is a one plus one equals three scenario."
For the Sullivan Schoen firm, which has seen two of its senior-most partners retire in recent years, the benefits are many. For one thing, it allows the firm’s long-established clients to have access to many other practice areas within Pullman & Comley, including municipal representation and labor and employment.
"Our school board clients, we’re finding more and more, are looking for representation not just in the employment sector, but also in areas such as land use and environmental regulation," McKeon said. "We can extend our breadth of our representation in other areas, and Pullman is such a great firm" to be part of.
One longtime partner at Sullivan Schoen, Catherine M. Thompson, had most recently been working part time. She will not be moving on with the group.
This is at least the second instance of a larger firm absorbing a smaller firm in Connecticut in recent months. In January, a dozen members of Farmington’s Levy & Droney joined the Hartford office of Hinckley Allen & Snyder, a move that meant dissolution of Levy & Droney. That move boosted the size of Hinkley Allen’s Hartford office to about 35 lawyers.
Meanwhile, in late 2011, the plaintiffs’ firm Carter Mario Injury Lawyers absorbed most of the members of the North Haven medical malpractice firm of Sinoway, McEnery, Messey & Sullivan.
Analysts say such mergers allow firms to quickly expand into new practice areas. Law firm mergers in general were on the uptick in 2012 and the first quarter of 2013, according the National Law Journal, which is owned by the same parent company as the Connecticut Law Tribune. Sixty mergers were reported last year and 17 in the first three months of 2013.
Peter Giuliani, a Weston-based law firm consultant, has noted the trend of smaller firms being merged into larger ones.
Larger "law firms are recruiting laterals to fill gaps," he said, adding a handful of firms are currently looking for such opportunities. In some cases, "a couple of my clients have interests in [acquiring] labor and employment or environmental practices because their go-to partners in these areas are about to retire in the next five years."
According to those involved in the Pullman & Comley expansion, the move is all about strategic concentration of services. In its history, lawyers for Sullivan Schoen have negotiated hundreds of collective bargaining agreements on behalf of public agencies under the Teacher Negotiation Act and the Municipal Employee Relations Act.
But over the past couple of years, Sullivan Schoen has found some school districts it once represented choosing to do business with competitors. Last summer, Shipman & Goodwin, which has 150 attorneys with offices in Hartford, Stamford, Greenwich, Lakeville and Washington D.C., was hired to represent the Region 16 Board of Education.
Also last year, the Plainville Board of Education voted to replace Sullivan Schoen, which had represented the district for 20 years, with the Avon firm of Chinni Meuser.
McKeon said the loss of those clients had nothing to do with the decision to join forces with Pullman. "It goes with the territory; there’s a relatively small bar that does this type of work," he said. "We have clients who have been with us for 38 years and we have clients who have been with us a few years. There can be a revolving door, and that can be the nature of the beast."
Sometimes, for instance, a new school superintendant can decide to change law firms. At the same time, McKeon acknowledged, competition has increased among firms in the school law practice area. "Yes, there is competition. It’s a growing area in employment law," he said. "I think the established school law firms are expanding and it’s an area more [other] firms want to get into."
Sullivan Schoen’s merger with Pullman & Comley has captured the attention of other education lawyers. Robert M. Opotzner, whose practice at Danbury’s Collins Hanafin Garamella Jaber & Tuozzolo includes education law, said McKeon is well-known among school board lawyers.
"He’s an excellent lawyer, they’re both excellent firms, and it makes sense that they will combine resources," Opotzner said. He was philosophical about the idea of increased competition. "The goal is to have quality lawyers working on the best cases. That’s what makes the system run smoothly for everyone."•