Law Firms Giving Back

While many law firms and companies alike are doing well despite today’s challenging economic environment, the mood and message this holiday season is different.  Schwartz Media Strategies’ clients Leesfield & Partners and Kluger Kaplan Silverman Katzen & Levine, two prestigious law firms with a long history of giving back to the South Florida community, kept with tradition this holiday season in supporting local charities, while recognizing the hard work of their own staff with festive, yet modest holiday parties.  See today’s excellent article on this topic by Vanessa Blum of American Lawyer Media.

Economic Crisis
Law firms forego holiday parties for holiday giving

Tis the season to be … frugal?

In a year of layoffs, pay cuts and economic woes throughout the legal industry, some South Florida firms are forgoing lavish holiday banquets in favor of thriftier celebrations.

“We didn’t want to send the wrong signal,” explained attorney Jeffrey Shapiro, who heads the Miami and Fort Lauderdale offices of Arnstein & Lehr.

Before 2008, the Chicago-based firm splurged on a party for lawyers, staffers and spouses in its three South Florida offices. A favorite venue was Fort Lauderdale’s Riverside Hotel on upscale Las Olas Boulevard, with transportation provided at the firm’s expense.

But after the meltdown last year, firm leaders decided to save money by scaling back to an afternoon reception in each office — “nicely done but not nearly as expensive,” as Shapiro puts it.

“We don’t want to have this expensive party and at the same time say to people, ‘You’re not getting normal raises, you’re not getting normal bonuses,’” he said.

John Sumberg, managing partner of 80-lawyer Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod, said holding this year’s holiday party in the firm’s Miami office is “less expensive” and seemed “more appropriate for the economy.”

Last year, staff and attorneys dined at Baleen, a ritzy oceanfront restaurant on a private island off Miami’s Coconut Grove.

ira-leesfield3“The important part of the holiday party is for people to be able to get together and spend time together. We can accomplish that here,” Sumberg said.

Instead of sending gift baskets to clients, Bilzin Sumberg made charitable donations to the United Way. Meanwhile, Sumberg said year-end bonuses for associates would reflect the tough financial climate. He declined to give specifics.

“I think they’ll be in line with what’s going on in the economy,” he said.

Mark Raymond, managing partner of Broad and Cassel’s Miami office, said he asked employees whether they would prefer to have a traditional party or see the money go toward year-end bonuses. You can guess the results.

The firm is skipping its usual open-bar affair at a restaurant with dinner and live music. Attorneys and staff got together for a low-key office party at roughly 20 percent of the cost.

Raymond said the savings will add about $300 to each bonus check.

“The savings are flowing directly to them,” he said. “Things are tight, and people don’t have much breathing room.”

Holiday traditions

Partners at 64-lawyer Berger Singerman debated whether to go forward with their annual holiday blowout, said co-managing partner Paul Singerman.

The Florida firm is still pushing hard to collect fourth-quarter payments from clients, and the Dec. 12 reception for roughly 235 at Hugh’s Culinary in Fort Lauderdale was an expensive proposition, he acknowledged.

“We considered not having a holiday party this year because of the macroeconomic circumstances,” he said. “We concluded we should have a party, but we should also be sensitive to what’s happening in the lives of our colleagues and in our community.”

With that in mind, Berger Singerman used the event to kick off a year of charitable giving, Singerman said. The firm, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, plans to donate a total of $250,000 to 25 charities. As guests arrived at the party, they received a $50 voucher to place in a box for their chosen organization.

“We want our people to connect personally to the firm’s charitable giving,” he said.

The cost of a high-end reception with open bar and a posh food spread can top $125 per person, not including entertainment, cab vouchers, hotel accommodations and other expenses.

Mark Semple, catering director at the Riverside Hotel, said companies have scaled back on holiday parties this year, and holiday business is considerably slower than the boom year of 2007.

“This is a time when firms have to make choices,” said Joseph Zumpano, managing shareholder of Zumpano Patricios & Winkler in Coral Gables and chairman of the Florida Association of Managing Partners. “When you have seen firms collapse and seen friends and family lose their jobs, staff and attorneys would want firms to act conservatively on nonessential expenses.”

At his firm, holiday traditions include a Thanksgiving potluck where employees bring dishes connected to their cultural background and a firm gift exchange. Each year staff members choose the restaurant for a holiday luncheon.

“We’re sticking with our tradition, but our tradition is not meant to be a high-end event,” Zumpano said. “It’s meant to be a modest celebration with a family feel.”

Miami personal injury attorney Ira Leesfield said he cut back on his firm’s plans after receiving a call from a Key West senior center in need of donations for a holiday dinner.

Leesfield took $500 from his budget for a luncheon at Christy’s steakhouse in Coral Gables and gave it to the center. That means attorneys and staff at Leesfield & Partners will be buying their own beverages and desserts, Leesfield said.

“It seemed ridiculous that we couldn’t do something for someone,” he said. “It was the right thing to do.”

Party on

Despite the difficult economic times, some firm leaders decided not to scrimp on holiday parties.

“More than ever it’s time for a celebration,” said Stuart Grossman, co-founder of Grossman Roth in Miami, which held its party Dec. 12 at LaGorce Country Club in Miami Beach. “We’re very blessed and very fortunate, and we want our staff to know that.”

The Miami office of Holland & Knight combined festivity with philanthropy — and a tax write-off — with its Dec. 4 happy hour at the Four Seasons Hotel. The firm bid on the event worth roughly $20,000 at a dinner auction benefiting the Kristi House, a group aiding victims of child abuse.

It was a year for new traditions at Miami’s Kluger Kaplan Silverman Katzen & Levine, the 20-lawyer litigation boutique formed out of the breakup of Kluger Peretz Kaplan & Berlin.

Partner Todd Levine said the group wanted to celebrate their first year of business and show appreciation to staff. Lawyers and staff gathered for an afternoon party at Dolores But You Can Call Me Lolita near Miami’s Mary Brickell Village.

“It’s not that great an expense to have a party, but it is appreciated,” he said.

For the Miami office of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, the annual holiday party is the only event that brings together attorneys, staff and significant others, managing partner Mark Zelek said.

About 120 people were expected to attend this year’s gala at the Hotel Intercontinental in Miami.

“It’s the event of the year,” Zelek said.