Stephanie Friese (from left) Christian Torgrimson and Julie Sellers. (Courtesy photos)

Commercial real estate boutique Pursley Friese Torgrimson has disbanded—a victim of its own success, the firm’s principals said.

The close-knit boutique, which provided an in-house nanny for the children of its 12 lawyers and staff, had reached a point where it needed to get much bigger or become part of a larger firm, said co-managing partners Stephanie Friese and Christian Torgrimson, who are both joining much larger out-of-state firms.

“Our firm was a victim of its own success,” Friese said. “It grew so quickly that we had outgrown our shoes as far as infrastructure. At the same time, our clients were getting bigger and more sophisticated.”

“It became apparent to us that we could choose to either focus on our client work or spend significant time and resources building our business,” she added.

Friese, who handles real estate transactions and litigation, joined forces with Torgrimson and Charles Pursley to launch the boutique in 2013. It added a zoning team when Julie Sellers and Doug Dillard joined in 2015 from Weissman Nowack Curry & Wilco (now Weissman).

Torgrimson’s mentor, Pursley, is likely the most eminent eminent domain lawyer in the state. He wrote the book on it for Georgia, in fact, after getting his start handling all the condemnations for MARTA’s new rail system in the 1970s.

Similarly, Sellers’ mentor, Dillard, is the eminence grise of Georgia zoning law, handling everything from the zoning for Perimeter Mall in the 1970s to State Farm’s new Sandy Springs headquarters more recently.

“There were tears when we parted ways yesterday,” said Torgrimson, who spoke to the Daily Report on Friday, her first day at her new firm, Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein.

“We have great affinity and respect for each other,” she added. “We liked the idea of a whole-firm transition, but we realized each practice area had different needs.”

Torgrimson joined Parker Poe, based in Charlotte, as a partner on Friday with the rest of Pursley Friese’s eminent domain team: Pursley and Angela Robinson as special counsel and Elizabeth Story as counsel. Bob Stubbs, an experienced real estate lawyer, joined as special counsel. Paralegal Lisa Bass and two other staff members also made the move.

Friese joined Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Aughtry, based in Texas, as a partner along with her colleague of 18 years, Christine Norstadt, as senior counsel.

Sellers and Dillard eschewed Big Law and instead started their own zoning law firm, Dillard Sellers, located in south Buckhead at 1776 Peachtree St. N.W.

Pursley Friese’s other zoning lawyers, Baxter Russell and Jeff Haymore, joined them along with paralegal Jennifer Taylor. Haymore had joined Pursley Friese last fall after more than a decade with the city of Atlanta law department litigating land-use matters.

While Torgrimson and Friese chose large multistate firms, Sellers said her team’s zoning work is predominantly in metro Atlanta and based on relationships.

“We’re not going to Nashville to do zoning. I don’t know the city council members,” said Sellers, who chairs the city of Atlanta’s Urban Design Commission. “Keeping a smaller environment is what attracted us to Pursley Friese Torgrimson initially. We want to maintain that.”

Dillard Sellers’ clients are property owners and real estate developers for projects ranging from residential subdivisions to mixed-use projects and industrial properties. That includes developer S. J. Collins, which just opened North Decatur Square, a $90 million, mixed-use shopping district in Decatur that is anchored by a Whole Foods Market 365.

Attorneys at other firms often hire them for clients’ land-use matters, Sellers said. Staying small means they can offer rate flexibility and that the lawyers engaging them don’t have to worry about their clients getting poached.

Get Big or Do Law?

Big Law is new for Friese and Torgrimson. Both in their early 40s, they said they needed the support of a larger firm to build their practices.

For a 12-lawyer real estate boutique with a growing client base, recruiting talented young lawyers and providing their clients with competitive IT were challenges, they explained, plus they wanted to offer their clients corporate and tax capabilities.

“It’s very difficult right now for a small firm to compete with large firms on associate salaries,” Friese said, especially after a national wave of associate pay hikes at big firms last year.

Friese added that “privacy and data security issues are huge” for her big clients—a group that includes Coca-Cola and the FDIC. “To provide that infrastructure for them was very expensive and difficult,” she said.

“Everything is moving to the digital world and away from hard files,” Torgrimson said. “But having the physical and internet capability requires a huge investment of funds and time.”

“We’re winding up, not winding down,” Friese said. “We didn’t want to waste time on the administrative stuff. We wanted to practice law.”

Both lawyers looked at midsize firms instead of megafirms. Parker Poe, based in Charlotte, has about 200 lawyers. Its Atlanta office, launched three years ago, was its first outside the Carolinas. Chamberlain Hrdlicka, based in Texas, has about 120 lawyers.

“I wanted to be at a firm that is Southeastern and of a certain size, but a 1,000-lawyer firm is not what I wanted or what my clients need,” Torgrimson said, adding that her team chose Parker Poe because it has the same “team mentality” as Pursley Friese.

Torgrimson said her team represents a variety of commercial property owners faced with condemnation actions, including real estate developers, REITs, shopping center owners, franchisors and franchisees, convenience stores and gas stations, plus the odd chicken farmer or bail bondsman. At times they represent a condemning authority, like MARTA.

When Torgrimson met Parker Poe’s managing partner, Tom Griffin, she said the first thing he addressed was “culture, fit and how important firm life is.”

“Making money and representing clients is important, but it’s also about making people feel valued, challenged and giving them the support to grow and become really good lawyers,” she said.

Torgrimson added that the entrepreneurial opportunity of helping build an Atlanta office for the Carolina firm also appealed to her. Parker Poe aims to build out a full-service practice in Atlanta, Griffin said in a statement.

The five Pursley Friese lawyers give Parker Poe 13 lawyers in Atlanta and  a solid real estate team after recruiting Ellen Smith, who has a real estate and land-use practice, as a partner from Holt, Ney, Zatcoff & Wasserman last year. The other Atlanta lawyers are IP and commercial litigators. Parker Poe also opened a Georgia lobbying shop a year ago with Amy Odum and Chuck McMullen.

Friese said she and Norstadt considered joining Parker Poe, as well, before taking their practice to Chamberlain instead. But having the FDIC as a client conflicted them out, since the Charlotte firm represents a lot of banks. “Where we thought we could thrive is different,” she said, “but no bridges were burnt between any of us.”