Like many other small firms in Manhattan, the end of a lease triggered the dissolution of Wormser, Kiely, Galef & Jacobs, a general services firm dating back to the mid-1930s.
Wormser Kiely had as many as 38 attorneys a few years ago and an office in White Plains. But that office closed in 2014, and the firm saw defections when its merger talks with larger firms in the last few years did not come to fruition, said former Wormser Kiely managing partner Charles Banino.
Ultimately, 22 attorneys remained at the firm’s East Midtown offices before the partnership disbanded in the last month to at least seven law firms: Greenspoon Marder; Condon & Forsyth; Kauff McGuire & Margolis; Warshaw Burstein; Eaton & Van Winkle; Phillips Nizer; and CKR Law.
“The lease was the primary driver” for the dissolution, Banino said. “People look at various relationships and opportunities, and when a lease expiration is staring at you in the face, you make the best decision for yourself, and more importantly, for your clients.”
Wormser Kiely is one of several small New York firms to fold in recent years when confronted with a lease expiration. Others triggered at least in part by lease terms include Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard; Hofheimer Gartlir & Gross; and Morgenthau & Greenes.
New York law firm consultant J. Mark Santiago, speaking generally on the legal market, said surviving a lease expiration is a “large hurdle” for a small firm, especially in the last five years in Manhattan, where more and more landlords are demanding personal guarantees from partners in new leases.
Lease renewal and new leases “are one of the major reasons for small firm disintegration,” he said, “because it makes partners take a hard look at their firm’s financial stability and long-term prospects.”
Banino, the former leader of Wormser Kiely, said its dissolution was “not for economic reasons,” noting that “last year’s revenue was probably stronger than any other year in recent memory.” Banino declined to disclose firm revenue or partner profits.
With its lease expiring in early 2019 at 825 Third Ave., the firm could not renew, as the landlord, the Durst Organization, is seeking to redevelop the office tower, said Banino. “Every tenant has to leave,” he said.
Meanwhile, the partners had “different interests” and different opportunities with other firms, and some attorneys in their late 60s and early 70s didn’t want to sign a long-term lease, he said.
Wormser Kiely was a product of the 1989 merger of two law firms that both dated to the mid-1930s, and it was composed of transactional, corporate governance, litigation and trusts and estate practices. It was also known for having a strong immigration practice.
The largest portion of the Wormser Kiely firm—10 attorneys in transactional, real estate, banking, trust and estate, litigation, and commercial law—landed at Condon & Forsyth, a 50-attorney firm in New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
The second-largest group, five attorneys who made up the bulk of Wormser Kiely’s immigration practice, moved to labor and employment firm Kauff McGuire & Margolis, creating a new immigration practice there.
The group represents several international law firms for corporate immigration needs such as obtaining work visas and resident status for their employees. The lawyers also represent clients in other industries, such as entertainment and production, beverage, publishing, financial services and engineering industries, said Donald Wolfson, a former Wormser Kiely attorney who headed the group joining Kauff McGuire. Other attorneys coming from the firm include Andrew Lerner, Michael Mandel, Gayle Oshrin and Joseph Yoo.
“It was a harmonious, nonacrimonious dissolution,” Wolfson said. “We were together for a long, long time, and it was a very good vibrant partnership.”