Law firm Walter Haverfield dropping some practice groups, considering smaller office space

An economy-wracking health crisis prompted some soul searching for Cleveland’s 90-year-old Walter Haverfield that will culminate in some big changes for the law firm in 2023.

“I think the pandemic caused a lot of things to come into focus,” said Ralph Cascarilla, Walter Haverfield’s managing partner for the last two decades. “These things cause you to start to think through what it is that you are doing and whether you can do it better.”

Effective Jan. 1, Walter Haverfield will release its public law and education law practice groups.

That action is expected to impact roughly 40 employees, including 25 attorneys, said administrative partner Kevin Murphy. He and Cascarilla characterized the move as an amicable split.

Some leaders of those practice groups invited to weigh in on the move did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The departing personnel amount to about 30% of the firm’s attorney bench in the local market, according to Crain’s research.

The business reported 94 attorneys firmwide, including 84 in the Cleveland market, for the Crain’s 2022 law firms list, ranking Walter Haverfield as the ninth-largest law firm in Northeast Ohio.

Separating from those people and practices is not a decision that was taken lightly, Cascarilla said, and is driven by a strategy for what practice areas the firm wants to focus on moving forward, namely those centering on corporate work and private entities.

While the firm’s roots have historically been in labor and employment with some public entity representation, its public education practice in particular is one that developed under Cascarilla’s tenure as managing partner.

But as the firm’s dual work in public and private arenas has grown in tandem, that has presented some conflicts between the two.

“As we expanded representation, and as you get larger and have a bigger footprint in the marketplace, these things start to be in conflict,” Cascarilla said. “That was one of the major precipitating factors in why we talked about this idea of a transition.”

“These are very good lawyers in their practice areas,” he added. “We just assumed, as we looked at it, that what would be better for both sides if there were clarity for their practices in a different format.”

The firm has, in fact, placed a greater focus on work in the private sector in recent years.

This is underscored by the firm’s 2019 acquisitions of Hurtuk & Daroff, a real estate and finance firm in Mayfield Heights, and Nardone Ltd., a tax planning and business services firm in Columbus. Both roll-ups marked the firm’s first and only acquisitions since its founding in 1932.

“This decision is really an outgrowth of our focus and expansion over the years,” Cascarilla said. “We have made a concerted effort to develop the corporate tax and commercial litigation components of the firm. And as we have expanded our real estate practice as well, we bump up to some issues with public entities, and conflicts develop.”

Lawyers, of course, charge higher rates in the private sector than they do for public entities.

But the dropping of these practices is not a reflection of any need to cut costs or cut loose underperforming groups, Cascarilla said. He emphasized that Walter Haverfield — which has certainly garnered a reputation in the market for its fiscally conservative approach to business — is “doing well financially” and the impacted personnel have made meaningful contributions to the firm.

“I look at this first and foremost as an issue about the focus of representation, our ability to represent a certain type of client and what that means to us as a firm,” Cascarilla said. “The needs of the different practices combined with the inherent conflicts that can come about are the factors that really compelled and influence the decision-making process internally.”

Where the departing lawyers go from here is to be seen.

But observers of the legal market are confident they’ll be in demand.

“This is the first I’m hearing about it, but I can think of a couple law firms that, when they hear this, I think they’ll want to go after those lawyers,” said Rebecca Ruppert McMahon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. “I think there will be some excitement in the marketplace to pick up these practice areas.”

“These are great lawyers,” added Murphy. “We like working with them. It just became a matter of fit and focus and the path forward. We are determined to focus on commercial real estate, tax and corporate litigation practices that have been some of the biggest drivers of our growth the last 10 years in attorneys and revenue.”

The firm is an aggressive lateral hirer and will continue looking to add people to its practice areas of focus in the private sector.

As far as other moves in store for the firm, Cascarilla notes that he will not run for another term as managing partner after his current term ends March 1.

As administrative partner, Murphy could be in line for that role. But partners will ultimately vote on their firmwide leader next year.

Cascarilla, who has no immediate plans to retire, said he’s looking forward to devoting more time to his own practice areas, which include a combination of commercial and environmental litigation.

“I have indicated to the partners that I am happy to do whatever in terms of management that they might need me for,” Cascarilla said. “But I have missed having the amount of time that I would like for my personal practice.”

The firm is also reconsidering its office needs as it looks to the future, which has been a common theme among professional services businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was less than two years into Cascarilla’s first term as managing partner that Walter Haverfield set up shop at the Erieview Tower in downtown Cleveland.

But with a moderate downsizing in store and the firm’s lease expiring in November 2023, management is considering a move — though there is every intention to remain headquartered in Cleveland.

“We’re looking for something a bit smaller that is more efficient and modern,” Murphy said. “So there will be some cost savings there. We also have more people working from home, which is part of it, too.”