While the city of Harrisburg has been mired in financial difficulty in recent years, firms in the state capital said they’ve recently seen upticks in practices that suggest positive growth in the general economy.
Those upward trends are being driven by both local and national developments, including the Marcellus Shale natural gas play and Obamacare.
For example, David M. Kleppinger, chairman of McNees Wallace & Nurick, Harrisburg’s largest firm, said labor and employment has been an active practice recently, in part due to the pending implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Similarly, Stephen C. Gierasch, co-managing shareholder of Pittsburgh-based Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney’s Harrisburg location, said his office’s labor and employment practice has also benefited from the increased Obamacare-related work, particularly after experiencing somewhat of a drop-off following a huge period of activity in 2010 and 2011, when companies were at the height of their downsizing efforts and counseling related to employment terminations was in high demand.
Now that that aspect of the practice has slowed down a bit, Gierasch said, many labor and employment lawyers have turned their attention to counseling employers on health care reform.
Likewise, Gierasch said his office’s health care practice has also been busy as the industry prepares for Obamacare.
But that’s not the only thing driving that work, Gierasch said, noting that the health care industry, by its very nature, lends itself to a lot of consolidation and maneuvering by hospitals and insurers, which has in turn led to a good deal of merger and acquisition work in that sector.
In fact, Gierasch said the office’s transactional work has been up across the board, thanks in part to some thawing in the lending freeze that took hold during the recession.
Additionally, according to Gierasch, investors are just now starting to consider spending some of the money that has built up on the sidelines since the recession hit.
Meanwhile, Gierasch said the lack of transactions over the past few years has led to a buyer’s market in which sellers continue to feel pressure to be more flexible than they might otherwise be.
As a result, aggressive investors have been able to get some pretty good deals, according to Gierasch.
In general, Gierasch said, the psychological impact of the economic downturn, which caused investors and businesses to hunker down in the face of macro uncertainties, seems to be wearing off a bit.
Heidi B. Hamman Shakely, member-in-charge of Pittsburgh-based Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott’s Harrisburg office, described it as a "generally more positive outlook in the business world."
Shakely said her office’s transactional practices, while not quite to the desired level of activity, are still experiencing an uptick.
Kleppinger, however, had a slightly more cautious view, noting that while his firm’s transactional practices have shown promising signs, many deal talks still continue to hit a wall.
"We tend to get a lot of inquiries about potential acquisitions and potential mergers and some due diligence gets done but not as many [deals] get done as they did pre-recession," Kleppinger said, adding, "We still hear from M&A lawyers that they’re not back to the level of activity we saw pre-recession. If all the deals got consummated that get discussed, they would be."
Statewide developments are also driving work at Harrisburg firms.
Kleppinger said his firm has done a lot of work related to natural gas drilling, though much of it is done out of the firm’s Scranton and State College locations.
Similarly, Gierasch said a few of the attorneys in his office support the oil and gas work being done out of Buchanan Ingersoll’s Pittsburgh office.
But Gierasch said other aspects of the firm’s energy practice are focal points in Harrisburg, particularly utilities.
According to Gierasch, that work has been "very steady" since Pennsylvania took the step of deregulating the electricity market.
On a local level, Harrisburg’s own fiscal woes have affected firms in various ways, both positively and negatively.
While Kleppinger said his firm, which represents Dauphin County, has received some business related to the Harrisburg bankruptcy threat, he admitted there had initially been some concern that the city’s financial condition might cause outsiders to view Central Pennsylvania as a whole in a negative light.
Luckily, according to Kleppinger, those concerns appear to have been largely unfounded.
But Gierasch did say that he’s noticed a marked decline in outside investment in the city, particularly in the real estate development industry.
While his firm’s local developer clients continue to successfully do work locally, investment from markets like New York and Philadelphia have all but dried up, Gierasch said.
"You don’t see outside money coming into the city," Gierasch said.