Printed in The Legal Intelligencer – March 28, 2016
Author: Lizzy McLellan
As local governments deal with more complex legal issues, they are increasingly looking to midsize law firms with deep municipal benches to meet their needs, municipal lawyers said.
Local governments and municipalities have recently been more interested in working with firms that can provide expertise in various legal areas with which municipal law overlap, particularly in southeastern Pennsylvania, attorneys said. They named labor and employment, litigation, real estate and liens and civil rights issues as examples.
William C. McCarty of Barley Snyder in Lancaster, who dedicates much of his practice to municipal finance, said he has noticed more midsize and larger firms responding to requests for proposals from municipalities and school districts.
“As you become a firm with more sophistication and depth, it provides a lot more supporting expertise in areas that you have to deal with in municipal law that might not have been available” at a smaller firm, or from a solo practitioner, McCarty said. “There’s a whole laundry list of things that provide more depth.”
McCarty joined Barley Snyder last year from Hartman Underhill & Brubaker, along with five other attorneys from that 18-attorney firm, which dissolved late last year. A midsize firm, he said, provides a more immediately available expertise at a higher level. Barley Snyder now has more than 70 attorneys.
Municipalities that traditionally worked with solo practitioners or generalists are beginning to move away from that, Rudolph Clarke attorney Peter Amuso said. “Now there’s a sense that they really do need some more expertise,” Amuso said. But “I still think it’s a space that it’s harder for large firms to play in. Larger firms have higher rent, bigger footprints, more overhead.”
So working with a midsize firm can pair efficiency with low overhead costs. “If you’re a municipal practice that doesn’t have that in-house expertise, that can cost the client a lot of money to find a firm to do that work for you,” said Vincent M. Pompo, chairman of the municipal law practice at Lamb McErlane.
Pompo gave some examples of in-house expertise he uses. Partner Helen Han Mountain, from the business practice, has helped municipal clients with revenue generation, he said. And attorneys with civil rights expertise have helped with claims against local police departments.
Lamb McErlane has a seven-lawyer municipal team, after hiring two attorneys, Helen J. Esbenshade and Alan P. Novak, from Conrad O’Brien in November. The hires bolstered an already strong municipal practice in Chester County.
Pompo said he has noticed when some solicitors have retired, they were replaced by a firm with a bench of municipal lawyers.
“In my view, with respect to the southeastern Pennsylvania area, I don’t know how a solo practitioner can really provide the effective representation of a municipality in this area,” Pompo said. “There’s just so much going on, that I think in order to serve the interests of the municipalities you would constantly need to be reaching out to special counsel.”
However, Pompo said that might not be the case in other parts of the state because there doesn’t seem to be the same level of complexity. But, he said, his firm will occasionally serve as special counsel to municipalities in other regions, on discrete issues that require knowledge of a particular subject.
John Good, a longtime solo municipal attorney in Chester County, has served as solicitor to multiple municipalities, as many as six at a time, he said. Good said it’s fair to say that municipalities are heading toward working with midsize firms rather than solo practitioners. Even from the standpoint of being present at various clients’ meetings and events, having support from multiple lawyers can be a benefit.
“I could make a fortune if I could cut myself in half,” Good said. He said he started his legal career as a township solicitor 50 years ago. “I don’t know much about practicing law these days except municipal law,” Good said. Any litigation work he does is tied to municipal issues, he said. Other matters he refers out. “If you have a larger firm, you can keep it in-house,” Good said. “I think townships are a little more comfortable with that.”
Like Pompo, Good said that may not be the case everywhere in the state. There seems to be more solo practitioners working with municipalities in the central and northern parts of the state, he said. But the work he does would be easier with more people, he said, “particularly these days.”
“It just wasn’t that much activity in the field and for years it was nothing more than land use stuff. Now it’s a bit of everything,” Good said.
Lizzy McLellan can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Printed in the Legal Intelligencer – March 28, 2016