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Bar News - February 22, 2013

Shaheen & Gordon Doubles Size in Tough Times


This article continues our coverage of the Top 20 Largest Law Firms list published in the December 2012 issue of Bar News. Future issues will look at practice area trends, the expansion of the "local" legal market and other industry changes.

Itís common to find a staid portrait of the founders on a law firm wall, conveying tradition, stolidity, and dignity. A photograph hanging in the Shaheen & Gordon conference room in Concord conveys something entirely different.

The magazine-quality photo, in a tight close-up, shows a broadly grinning William Shaheen facing the camera while co-founder Steve Gordon plants a smooch on Shaheenís cheek. Taken at a celebration of the firmís 30th anniversary, the photograph is, literally, an in-your-face image of informality and passion Ė traits the firm apparently intends to impart to all who gather there Ė partners, clients, even adversaries.

Asked whether the photo says something about the firmís image, managing partner Michael Noonan agrees itís unconventional. "Weíre not shooting for typical," he says simply. Typical or not, itís hard to argue that the firmís record in recent years isnít worth emulating.

Law firm co-founders Steven Gordon, doing the kissing, and Bill Shaheen, celebrate the Shaheen & Gordon firm's 30th anniversary celebration in 2011.
Photo by Jeff Schapira.
As Bar News reported in its Top 20 NH Law Firms list in the December 2012 issue, no law firm grew more, based on the number of New Hampshire lawyers it employs, in the last decade than Shaheen & Gordon, which more than doubled in size from 14 lawyers in 2001 to 31 today Ė and did that without absorbing another law firm. The firm has also expanded from two to four offices, adding Nashua and Manchester offices to its original Dover and Concord locations.

And in January 2013, the firm celebrated the decision by the US First Circuit Court to uphold a $21.6 million verdict that Shaheen & Gordon believes is the "largest jury verdict in New Hampshire history." The win came in a product liability case against a pharmaceutical manufacturer originally decided by a federal jury in 2010. The firm also made headlines with two separate multi-million-dollar verdicts against the US government for the murders of two informants killed by Boston organized crime figure Whitey Bulger. The informantsí families argued that the FBI was responsible for their deaths because an FBI agent revealed their identities to Bulger.

The firm is not just a litigation firm, however, and identifies a number of transactional areas of practice and has attorneys licensed in neighboring states of Maine and Massachusetts.

Steve Gordon does not propose that his firm has the only prescription for success, but he is willing to share some of the firmís strategies for expansion during a difficult period for the legal profession.

Gordon founded the firm with William "Billy" Shaheen, when Shaheen, husband of now US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, stepped down as US attorney for the District of New Hampshire in 1981. Gordon, former legal counsel to US Senator John Durkin, had worked for Bill Shaheen as assistant US attorney. They decided their firm would have its own distinctive culture and that its work would flow from that culture.

"Collegiality, respect among those you work with, a sense of family Ė you spend a lot of time practicing law, you spend a lot of time with these people. If you treat people as your family, it has an impact on the service you provide," Gordon says.

Noonan, the firmís managing partner for the last eight years, says lawyer-to-lawyer referrals are an important part of business development. Thatís especially challenging, given the firmís multi-faceted practice.

"Attorneys can get nervous that you will take their client. Itís easier for a firm that does only one kind of case to reassure attorneys that you wonít steal their client," Noonan says, adding that the firm communicates its intent to respect the relationship between the client and the referring attorney. "This is something people donít like to talk about. We talk about it."

Unlike many firms, Shaheen & Gordon has more shareholders than associates. Among the lawyers, there are 15 partners, 13 full-time associates and five of counsel attorneys (one not admitted in NH), said Noonan.

"When we hire associates, we tell them that we hope every hire will stay. Itís not one of these situations where we expect a certain number to not stay with the firm. We hire very carefully and we hope that everyone stays and becomes a partner."

The old pyramid structure of a law firm, with many associates and a few partners, is gone, Noonan says. "I donít think it makes a lot of difference whether we are top-heavy," he adds. "The type of practice we have, the technology today Ė you canít leverage associates the way firms used to."

As managing partner, Noonan is the firmís administrator. Shaheen & Gordon, unlike other firms its size, does not have a non-lawyer overseeing its business operations. Noonan says he maintains a full-time practice but devotes about 30 percent of his time to management issues. Both he and Gordon say that the firm prefers having a lawyer minding the store.

"In our case, it just seems better to not have a distance between management and the lawyers," says Noonan. "If you have that kind of distance, you donít have a sense for what your lawyers are facing every day."

"We decided we did not need someone from the outside to keep us in line," Gordon adds. "Being managed by a practicing lawyer adds a whole dimension, a unique understanding. I thisnk we are better able to achieve consensus."

"As a firm, we try hard to get rid of dysfunctional politeness," he continues. Asked to define that term, Gordon explains that it occurs when people avoid talking about the elephant in the room. "That kind of politeness fosters politicking behind closed doors Ė the death knell of real trust."

Noonan says that as the law firm has grown, its founders find themselves part of a larger organization, rather than simply running their own firm. "They have started an enterprise that will go on after them."

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