Trading on their names
George LaMarche III started his legal career under the tutelage of iconic attorney E. Stewart Jones Jr., one of the highest-profile lawyers in the Capital Region.
LaMarche was not even done with law school when he became Jones’ first hire in 15 years. At 26, he won a $1 million verdict. Last year, Jones made him the first partner in the firm’s 113-year history who was not a family member.
In March, LaMarche left all of that and opened his own practice.
Count LaMarche among the younger attorneys in the Capital Region seizing a chance to develop their own brands. They believe the area’s legal sector has reached the cusp of a generational turnover. Yet they face higher barriers than ever before to reach the same level of public prominence as their old-guard predecessors—attorneys like E. Stewart Jones.
“Did people think I was crazy? No one came right out and said it, but I’d get plenty of puzzled looks that said, ‘What the …’ ” LaMarche said. “If you wait too long, you miss your chance. There has to be a change, naturally. Why not let that be me?”
That type of ambition is running up against a range of negative trends, whether lawyers are seeking to advance by opening their own firm, becoming partner at an existing practice or serving in public office.
For starters, escalating law school tuition means many people graduate with a six-figure balance on 20-year student loans.
The debt hampers their ability to secure bank financing. New firms, often working on thin margins, must also contend with rising malpractice insurance rates.
“There are real monetary pressures on lawyers trying to reach the top today that just did not exist before. It costs a lot more to capitalize a law firm today than it did 30 years ago,” said Gary Munneke, chair of the law practice management committee of the New York State Bar Association .
“A lot of them are naive about what it’s going to take,” said Munneke, who is also a professor at Pace Law School in White Plains. “There is no simple 1-2-3-step plan anymore that a lawyer can take to establish himself or herself at the top.”
The growth of attorney advertising has given rise to firms that consume many of the lower-level cases that attorneys used to soak up to earn their chops. Websites such as LegalZoom.com continue to grab more of this business.
Clients are also dictating change that works against younger attorneys.
The recession led clients to become more selective about which attorneys they will allow to handle their matters, Munneke said.
In response, many larger firms have altered hiring patterns, seeking to hire lawyers “laterally” from other firms while cutting their own entry-level offerings.
And here’s another layer: Albany County has the second-highest number of lawyers per capita in all of New York.
The generational change is more evident among trial lawyers and criminal defense attorneys, whose cases tend to grab the headlines. But it’s also quietly going on among attorneys handling civil and corporate matters, relationships based on behind-the-scenes networking and referrals.
“There are far fewer trials of any kind. Those opportunities are flat gone for younger lawyers. It is impossible today to have the experiences I had at the age I had them,” said Jones, who turns 70 in December.
“If you’re not at the top by 50, you’re probably never going to get there,” Jones said. “Where will the next great generation of trial lawyers come from? It is a real conundrum.”
Ryan Donovan, who is half of Jones’ age, asks the same question.
At 31, Donovan made partner at Harris Conway & Donovan PLLC in Albany. He is a Bethlehem town justice and the immediate past president of Albany Law School’s alumni association.
Donovan worked at Hinman Straub P.C. and at another firm with Mae D’Agostino, who is now a federal judge, before joining the Harris firm four years ago.
“I had 400 ideas but no clients. They gave me a chance to earn in; I did not have to put out a lot of money initially,” Donovan said.
“The question is, do you have the entrepreneurial spirit to put skin in the game? The increasing costs of law school have discouraged a lot of people from taking that risk,” he said.
Donovan, who handles personal injury, criminal defense and commercial litigation, said he has benefited from the experience of partner Gregory Harris, 60.
“I never wanted to start a firm with four guys who were 35, because where is the wisdom?” Donovan said.
“There is an aging litigation field in this region,” he said. “There is an inevitable change that will definitely happen in the next 10 years, and I think firms like mine have a great opportunity to advance.”
Lee Kindlon, 35, is pursuing the same opportunity from a different angle.
Kindlon started working at his father’s Albany firm, Kindlon Shanks & Associates, in 2006. His father, Terence Kindlon, has represented defendants in some of the more well-known and controversial criminal cases in the region.
Lee, who does not have a partnership stake, was on track to take over the firm whenever Terry, 64, retires.
But Lee has decided to run for election against sitting Albany County District Attorney P. David Soares. He will formally announce his candidacy for the 2012 race in November, leveraging a profile that had already received a boost from his father’s name.
“The idea of being D.A. for life appeals to me,” Kindlon said. “Why make the transition? I certainly love this job, but I think I’m better suited to worry about the system at the whole, not just the individual client. We all have our roles, and I know that’s supposed to be mine.”
Kindlon may one day square off against LaMarche, who works criminal defense, personal injury and DWI cases at his new firm in Clifton Park.
LaMarche had saved up for the move and selected office space in December, three months before he would leave the Jones firm.
He sold his townhouse in Lake Placid to free up more capital. He has a bank loan and credit line, but said he has not had to tap either one so far.
LaMarche took a few criminal cases and about 20 personal-injury cases with him when he left the Jones firm six months ago. One case led to a $250,000 settlement soon after he opened his firm.
LaMarche expects he will need to hire sometime this year.
“I could not have done this two years ago, and I would not want to do it five or 10 years from now,” LaMarche said. “Right now was just the right time to make my mark.”
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