Maryland lawyers said they’re seeing more and more people leave big general firms to establish themselves as experts in areas from intellectual property to white-collar defense or labor employment.

By Jenny Hottle, Daily Record Business Writer
Friday, July 11, 2014
Originally published on thedailyrecord.com

Seven years ago, Nancy Sachitano ran into a friend from law school at a courthouse. They were both present to argue motions in front of a judge. He worked at a large, local firm; she was a family lawyer at a small firm.

The judge called her friend’s case forward, and Sachitano watched as two other lawyers joined him at the front of the room. Her friend did not speak at all. When Sachitano’s turn came, she did the entire motion on her own.

“The contrast seemed very stark to me,” Sachitano said. “He essentially was there carrying the other guy’s bag. He had almost 20 years of experience, and he still was not the one to stand up in court and argue a motion.”

Sachitano opened her own family law firm, Sachitano & Associates, in 2011 after 14 years managing another firm. She wanted to be her own boss, to have creative freedom and build her own infrastructure.

Her Montgomery County practice is part of a trend toward smaller boutique firms that focus on a niche area of law. The trend isn’t new, but Maryland lawyers said they’re seeing more and more people leave big general firms to establish themselves as experts in areas from intellectual property to white-collar defense or labor employment.

The risks of opening a new practice are great, but the payoff is greater, said Ty Kelly, of Biran Kelly LLC in Baltimore.

“I wanted to have the ability to take any case that I wanted, turn down the cases that I wasn’t comfortable with and be able to make my own way,” Kelly said.

Kelly, a former federal prosecutor, and Jonathan Biran opened their criminal defense firm in March 2013 after leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore. Criminal defense was the natural transition, Kelly said, and the partners have spent the past 16 months experimenting to see what types of cases they like the most.

“My heart and soul is in criminal litigation, always has been,” Kelly said. “Having my own small firm that specializes in that works perfectly — as long as you can sustain yourself. That’s the business side of it.”

Kelly said she and Biran have enough work to support an associate, but they’ve been careful about their next move. They want to find someone who will stay and help grow the firm.

Since opening her firm, Sachitano said, she’s enjoyed the ability to make decisions on her own. When she worked for a previous firm, she persuaded her partners to switch to a new computer operating system, infuriating part of the staff. Now, at her own firm, resistance isn’t a challenge. She’s been able to explore ideas such as fixed-fee billing instead of billing clients by the hour.

“There’s obviously some risk when you start doing these things for the first time,” Sachitano said. “But I could try the experiment and see how it worked, as opposed to spending six months or more getting other lawyers to agree.”

Opening a boutique firm gives an individual the ability to build an organization of people with similar backgrounds who can collaborate on cases, said Jim Astrachan, of Astrachan Gunst Thomas in Baltimore.

Astrachan worked in tax and business law at the beginning of his career and taught tax courses at Loyola University Maryland. He developed an interest in intellectual property after representing a former student who was helping to create an advertising agency. Over time, he formed his own practice, where eight to nine lawyers litigate and counsel in areas such as copyright and trademark.

While litigation can be stressful, Astrachan finds ways to relax. Having his own practice means he can wear jeans and a pair of cowboy boots and bring his five-pound Chihuahua to the office. He teaches courses at the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore law schools and frequently appears on radio shows.

“I’m free to come and go pretty much as I want. I can create my own spirituality within the office,” Astrachan said. “This sort of adds to your peace of mind in what is a very stressful environment.”

But boutique firms are not without their challenges. Some general practice firms are developing their own niche departments, said Stephen Shawe, of Shawe & Rosenthal LLP in Baltimore.

Shawe’s father, Earl Shawe, went into private practice in 1947 to focus on labor law and later employment law. For many years, general practice firms referred clients to the boutique firm. Now, large local and national firms have their own departments, and Shawe & Rosenthal doesn’t receive as many referrals.

“But we have established ourselves as a specialty firm,” Shawe said. “Every single one of our clients has a general practice corporate lawyer. But they rely on us for labor employment work.”

Shawe said larger general practice firms — both local and national — have solicited his firm to merge, but no one in his office has expressed interest in working for a bigger practice.

Charles Curlett Jr., of Levin & Curlett LLC, left Saul Ewing in 2011 to spend more time representing individuals in a courtroom setting. The courtroom, he said, is where his core interest lies.

Curlett has found that practicing at a boutique firm is like working for a startup company instead of a major corporation.

“With startups, you’re not working any less or putting in fewer hours. But it’s a different dynamic,” Curlett said. “You feel that you’re the master of your own destiny, which makes it exciting.”

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