Developing a niche
Three Buffalo attorneys learn firsthand what it takes to launch a startup JIM COURTNEY Attorneys Sean Hopkins, left, Peter Sorgi and Marc Romanowski in their temporary law office in East Aurora. They’re planning a move to downtown Buffalo for their recently established firm. APRIL 24, 2015 15 Many did. While Sorgi and Hopkins had a better understanding of startup costs, it was somewhat of an eye-opener for Romanowski. Gone was the financial net that came with being associated with a larger firm. The new firm has five attorneys, two support staff and a law clerk. Now, besides handling issues for their clients, the trio have to deal with such items as paying rent and such operating costs as malpractice and health care insurance for their employees. Then there are other costs right down to legal pads, pens and coffee. They are responsible for the bottom line. Others who have started their own firm understand what the trio is facing. Been there. Done that, they say. “There’s always a certain amount of sticker shock,” said Buffalo attorney Anthony Colucci III, who started Colucci & Gallaher P.C. in 1995. “Health care costs gave me the biggest pause. Remember, most law firms are really just small businesses and we face the same challenges as other small businesses.” ‘Better call Saul’ Startup costs vary but consider that basic malpractice insurance can cost anywhere from $1,500 per year to more than $3,000 annually per lawyer, depending on the coverage. Top-level downtown Buffalo office space runs more than $25 per square foot. Office furniture including desks, conference tables and chairs can run deep into the thousands. Joshua Dubs, who runs a solo practice downtown, said he recently spent $900 on one filing cabinet. “The more professional of a look you want, the more expensive it will cost you,” he said. Dubs, a member of the Bar Association of Erie County’s Solo and Small Practice Committee and the Young Lawyers Committee, helps educate Bar Association members on the cost of starting a new practice. “It’s not easy and it’s not fun,” Dubs said. “It’s like ‘Better Call Saul’ (the ‘Breaking Bad’ spin-off).” Dubs opened his office in March 2009. The final costs, well into the five-figure range, were eye-opening, he said. “Even the basic essentials begin to add up fast,” he said. It helps that Hopkins Sorgi & Romanowski have hung out their own shingle at a time when, from an economic development perspective, the region is undergoing a major resurgence. “We do have a lot of nights where we are spending hours in a town hall,” Hopkins said. “But that’s OK.” One of the benefits of being a startup firm is that Hopkins, Sorgi and Romanowski can be more nimble when it comes to making decisions. They meet at least once a day to go over everything from client issues to possible new hires and any other management or legal issues that may arise. The focus remains on their clients. Startup costs are kept in perspective. Because so much of what they do focuses on development projects, all three are cognizant of the millions of dollars at stake and the regional implications when they present a project to a public-sector agency. With all three so deeply rooted in economic development issues, it is easy to bounce ideas and concerns off each other. “I have no problem calling Sean at 2 in the morning,” Sorgi said. “In fact, sometimes I talk to him more at 2 a.m. than at 2 p.m.” That is a difference from larger law firms, when partners and associates are often segmented into particular areas of expertise. “If we can’t get the approvals needed to get a hospital built, for instance, that becomes more than just an issue for our client, it is a regional issue,” Romanowski said. Palumbo, where both were associates. Following the retirement of the founder, the late Anthony Renaldo, the firm closed. “It was a big leap but we were confident,” Hopkins said of the partnership he formed with Sorgi. Romanowski, until recently, had been a partner at Harter Secrest Emery, heading up its environmental and energy practice groups. He had previously been an associate at Phillips Lytle LLP and before that with Woods Ovitt Gilman. Leaving the financial security of Harter Secrest was a tough decision, he said. “It was a bit of a leap for me, but I have a great deal of faith and comfort in working with Sean and Peter,” Romanowski said. “There was some absolute trepidation with the move. There were no guarantees that my clients would follow me.” KEEPING IT LEGAL THE REGION’S NEWLY ADMITTED LAWYERS SOURCE: BAR ASSOCIATION OF ERIE COUNTY 126 157 117* 2013 2014 2015 *As of April 15 New lawyers typically land at established law firms, on corporate legal staffs or they launch startup practices. This chart shows the number of new lawyers in Erie County licensed to practice in New York state. JIM COURTNEY Excitement about the region’s renaissance isn’t lost on economic development attorneys Sean Hopkins, left, Marc Romanowski and Peter Sorgi.