Smaller firm for labor, big employers

Mike Curley in his office at Curley, Hessinger & Johnsrud. "I just wanted to get all of the baggage out of the way," he said. "I don't want to play games."
Mike Curley in his office at Curley, Hessinger & Johnsrud. "I just wanted to get all of the baggage out of the way," he said. "I don't want to play games." (RYAN S. GREENBERG / Staff Photographer)

Mike Curley ventured into the marketplace in 2009 to focus on clients, at a smaller price.

Posted: October 15, 2012

When labor and employment lawyer Mike Curley noticed several years ago that the world of Big Law was focusing more on scale and profits and less on client relationships, his first thought was that wasn't the reason he had gone to law school.

But then Curley, one of the nation's most prominent employment lawyers, decided maybe it was time to create his own, smaller firm, where clients would get more attention. And maybe even be friends.

"I just wanted to get all of the baggage out of the way," Curley said. "I don't want to play games. I want to keep things real simple."

In 2009, Curley left a thriving practice at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius L.L.P, which among big law firms has one of the more robust employment practices, and struck out on his own.

He and a handful of other prominent employment lawyers founded Curley, Hessinger & Johnsrud L.L.P. with the idea of providing high-end labor and employment representation to major employers, but at a price well below the big-firm rate structure.

Curley, 54, and his colleagues brought big-name clients with them; the roster includes Goldman Sachs, Disney Worldwide, and NBCUniversal.

He was the lead labor lawyer for the Philadelphia Orchestra in its hard-nosed negotiations with musicians last year over pay, work rules, and pensions. Those negotiations were the most nerve-wracking of his career, he said.

The survival of the orchestra was at stake, and the concessions needed were huge. In the end, Curley negotiated steep compensation cuts and work-rule changes that leaders of the orchestra, which begins its new season Thursday, say have put it on a sounder footing.

"He was a crucial player in the process," said orchestra chairman Richard B. Worley. "He was very firm. He has a toughness, which was required by our task."

Curley founded his firm at a propitious moment. Labor and employment law is a practice area that, despite the headwinds buffeting the legal marketplace, has shown great vitality. In times of economic turmoil and hardship, conflicts between employers and employees grow and intensify. Employees sue more often, and employers need lawyers to defend them.

There are a handful of large, national firms, such as Littler Mendelson P.C., that practice nothing but employment law, and they are doing well. Thomas J. Bender, a lawyer in the firm's Philadelphia office, will become firm co-president in January.

But, paradoxically, the practice is viewed by many big, full-service firms as a sideline. There are a lot of lawyers who practice it, and rate competition in some matters can be fierce.

That's a turnoff for the big firms that prefer to focus on more profitable areas such as deal-making and litigation. Many have employment and labor lawyers, but their function is to provide a service to clients who hire the firm for other, more lucrative engagements.

Curley thought he could do it on a smaller and somewhat more intimate scale. His firm has 12 lawyers. One of them, David Silverman, his brother-in-law, does nothing but handle the business end.

The firm has offices in Philadelphia, Palo Alto, Calif., and New York, where Curley had earlier developed the bulk of his practice. To keep costs down, decor and compensation are relatively modest. He said the firm's rates are 35 percent to 40 percent below those of large firms.

Curley, who lives in Philadelphia with his wife at Symphony House on South Broad Street, charges out at $550 an hour, a modest hourly charge for a sought-after lawyer with a large practice in New York.

Relationships with clients are long term, and often personal. Some of his clients are friends, Curley said, and he even vacations with them, traveling to spring training or spending time with them at his Shore home.

In pursuing his career, Curley, a native Philadelphian, has traversed the country. After graduation from Villanova Law School in 1983, he moved to Los Angeles to join the powerhouse firm of O'Melveny & Myers L.L.P., and several years later moved to the firm's New York office.

In 2002, he moved to the New York office of Morgan Lewis.

"Morgan said, 'You will love Philly. You grew up there. Why don't we give you an office there, and you can travel back and forth to New York on the train,' " Curley said.

But it was clear that Big Law and Curley would part ways. He said that he felt loyalty to his clients but that the underlying cost structure of big firms like Morgan and O'Melveny caused upward pressure on rates. Clients wanted to stay with Curley but couldn't ignore the fact that perfectly competent lawyers might do the same work for less.

For Curley, who wanted to keep his clients, too, the decision was to lower costs by starting a new firm.

"I have a clear idea of what I want in my firm," he said. "When we have a slow time, no one is going to have to wonder whether they will be laid off. When someone gets sick or goes through a personal crisis, no one is going to have to wonder if this will be a problem."

Contact Chris Mondics at 215 854 5957 or

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