After a quarter-century with their names on one of the region's prominent law firms, two war horses with still-formidable power — Coleman B. Levy and John F. Droney — sat in a Hinckley Allen & Snyder conference room in downtown Hartford on the first business of the year, looking right at home at their new offices.
It may seem bittersweet, closing Levy & Droney and joining a New England regional firm with 150 lawyers along with a dozen of their colleagues. As of the start of 2013, their names aren't the ones on the shingle.
But Levy, who until recently was co-owner of the New Britain Rock Cats, and Droney, a former Democratic state chairman, said it's a happy melding that reflects changing times — for their firm and for the legal business.
Levy & Droney PC, of Farmington, had just 24 lawyers, far smaller than some midsize local firms that have dissolved in an era of consolidation. But over the years the firm had an outsized impact in greater Hartford as its two named principals merged their large personalities into a brand.
And unlike other firms that have gone by the wayside, the names on the door were still on the job until the end.
Levy & Droney had a diverse practice including corporate dealmaking, commercial real estate and personal services such as divorce, injury claims and estate planning. Unlike other small- to midsize firms that are struggling and must seek a merger for survival, their firm was doing well, Droney and Levy said.
"As our clients have matured and gotten larger, they've expanded their geographic footprint," Levy said.
Corporate clients would look for expertise in, say, tax law, retirement plans or environmental issues, Droney said, "and we've been referring out."
Now that won't happen. "Hinckley Allen has the bench strength," Levy said.
Levy and Droney both said there's no loss of identity as they move to 20 Church St., the "Stilts" building.
"Our identity is who we are as individuals and not Levy & Droney," Levy said. "We weren't defined by the firm. The firm to a great degree was defined by John and myself through our presence in the community."
Droney quipped that only his mother, may she rest in peace, would be upset that his name was off the door. But he added, "We had a brand that was well known."
The breakup of the firm also settled a succession question. What would have happened when Levy, 73, and Droney, 66, retired? Both said they have no plans to do so, but for most firms still partly or entirely controlled by their founders, that is a prickly question — all the more so because at Levy & Droney are both high-profile — no Mr. Inside in this pair.
"We came to a crossroads," said Ken Levine, who was head of the Levy & Droney litigation department and has joined Kroll, McNamara, Evans & Delehanty in West Hartford rather than move to Hinckley Allen & Snyder. "The younger generation was either going to take over the firm or it was time to look elsewhere."
Levine said he was in the group that wanted the firm to continue. He said the succession question was just one factor in the move, and that he harbors no hard feelings about the closing of the firm. He praised Droney and Levy for going through the process without pushing for their names to remain prominent.
Ultimately, 14 lawyers joined Hinckley Allen — nine of whom were partners, and remain partners — and ten did not, mostly those whose practices are in personal services rather than corporate law. It's not a merger, rather a sort of wholesale hiring and joining.
After every friendly business combination in recorded history, the principals sit together in a relaxed environment and declare it a match made in heaven. This one is no exception, and there are reasons to believe it might end up being true. Levy, Droney and Marc A. Crisafulli, the Hinckley Allen & Snyder managing partner, all said the cultures of the two firms are the same — a strong teamwork approach in contrast to powerful individual lawyers working in silos, and what Droney called a "roll up your sleeves" practice.
"We felt that it was a larger Levy & Droney," Levy said.
Even the fee structures were the same, they said — with hourly rates about two-thirds as much as the large national firms, for partners.
The merger happened after a few months of deliberation starting last summer. "We pursued them," Crisafulli said. "It's not like they were out talking to a bunch of firms and settled on us."
Levy & Droney grew out of a 1988 merger that created Tarlow, Levy, Harding & Droney, and ended up with the shorter name after some retirements. It's tough to name highlights, they said, because of the behind-the-scenes nature of the work. "We sort of see ourselves as the Navy SEALs of the legal world," Droney said.
One client, early on, caused the firm some woes. The firm represented Colonial Realty Co., which was the state's largest commercial real estate business until it collapsed in 1990 in a bankruptcy case that revealed massive fraud. Creditors and the bankruptcy trustee filed lawsuits against several law and accounting firms, charging negligence and fraud.
The largest lawsuit was thrown out by a federal judge but Levy & Droney settled for $10 million in another suit, admitting no wrongdoing. Droney at the time called the suit baseless and said the firm sued for the value of its malpractice to avoid a protracted battle.
For Hinckley Allen & Snyder LLP, with offices in Providence, Boston, Albany, Hartford and Concord, N.H., the reason for the pursuit was clear: establish a stronger foothold in the Connecticut capital. The firm opened here in 2008 when lawyers from the former Tyler Cooper firm joined up, and the latest move brings the total to 35 local attorneys.
There is no management structure for each office, only one management team and various practice areas.
Just a few years ago, stories were being written about the intense pressure on midsize firms, which were said to be too big to offer moderately priced, local, personal service and too small to compete against the national firms for blue-chip corporate work. The recession changed that, as even the biggest clients have looked to save money and firms have responded by running leaner. That has tilted the picture to favor some midsize firms.
"Clients don't want to walk into a room and get one partner and three associates," Levy said.
Hinckley, Allen & Snyder was co-founded in Rhode Island in 1906 by Theodore Francis Green, who in 1933 became governor of the Ocean State and later a U.S. senator. In 1987 the firm merged with the Boston firm of Snyder, Tepper & Comen.
The largest airport in Rhode Island is named for Green, whose name has not been on the firm's title since 1930 — when he resigned just before running for office.
"If someone wants to run for governor from this firm, we won't stop them," said Droney, a supporter of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Hinckley Allen & Snyder would typically compete for clients against firms such as Robinson & Cole and Day Pitney, both regional firms with local roots. Crisafulli said the firm isn't looking to bulk up for the sake of size.
And Droney and Levy both say their new platform will have the same local ties, including numerous nonprofit board positions and the firm's annual spring breakfast that the New Britain museum of American Art.
"It's already booked," Levy said.