Opening Statement: Weinberg, Garber Put Their Names over the Door

February, 2003 | BusinessWest
Paul Weinberg and John Garber have traded life with the large Springfield law firm Robinson Donovan for a different kind of challenge – operating their own firm. In the process, they have secured more control over the work they do, and they’ve also managed to gain a measure of victory over what Weinberg calls the “overhead monster.”

During his 20-year stint with the Springfield-based firm Robinson Donovan, Paul Weinberg was lead or co-counsel in a number of cases with jury awards to clients that were well in excess of $10 million. And he handled dozens more with six- and seven-figure settlements for clients.

But he told BusinessWest that none of those paydays was any more satisfying than the $2,500 retainer check he and his partner, John Garber, received last November, only a few days after they hung out their shingle in Northampton.

“I really can’t explain why,” said Weinberg, “except to say that it’s part of the cultural change that takes place when you go from being one of a number of partners in a large firm to having your own company. It’s a different world.”

That change manifested itself in a number of ways since Weinberg & Garber, P.C. opened its doors on King Street, said Garber, who was a litigator with Robinson Donovan for six years before forming his partnership with Weinberg. For starters, the two now take turns shoveling snow, taking out the trash, and watering the plants – a duty that Garber was in danger of losing until his performance – not to mention the plants’ health – improved recently.

Both partners said they made the move because something was missing in the old equation, especially a measure of control over the work they were doing. The two had worked together on a number of cases in recent years at Robinson Donovan, including the Kristin Gilbert murder trial and a groundbreaking case involving the airlines and portable defibrillators – and decided the chemistry was right for a partnership.

“We complement each other… that’s the real key to making something like this work,” said Garber. “We work well together, and we laugh at each other’s jokes. We make a good unit.”

Meanwhile, in addition to gaining more control over the work they do, they say that by starting their own firm, they’ve gained greater economic efficiency.

“When you work in a big firm, there are so many things that are done for you. When something falls on the floor. there’s someone who will come and clean it; if something needs to be delivered, someone will deliver it for you; if you need something copied, someone will copy it for you – but the price you pay for that is a mind-boggling cost per lawyer,” Weinberg said. “It’s like pushing a giant boulder up a hill; everyone did well by it, but the stresses of that wear on you after 20 years.”

The two partners budgeted for a lean, profitless first year, but after only three months they say it may be time to adjust their expectations based on the number of cases coming their way. Meanwhile, they’re leasing only 1,400 square feet, and discussions about where and how to expand – which they had thought might be years away – are already taking place. They’re entertaining offers to work with other lawyers on cases and believe they’ll be adding partners in the near future.

“We had the worst-case scenario as our operating model,” said Garber, “but so far, things are working out better than we could have hoped.”

Making Their Case

As they talked with BusinessWest about their important career move, Weinberg and Garber had nothing but good things to say about their experiences with Robinson Donovan. Both said it was a great work environment and that their caseloads were both fulfilling professionally and rewarding financially. But there are dynamics at work at every firm of that size that can make the experience somewhat frustrating, said Weinberg, adding that he decided about a year ago that, while he wanted to stay in law, he didn’t want to remain as a partner with a large firm.

“There were 17 partners there, and any time you have 17 hands on the wheel it’s hard to get a consensus on how to steer the car,” he said. “We eventually went to an executive-committee form of government at Robinson Donovan, but there were still 17 voices trying to be heard, and it was difficult making decisions on what cases to take and how to allocate resources.”

Now, Weinberg and Garber are doing the talking and sharing the driving, and they’re steering the firm in the direction they want to go.

For Garber, that’s the “bigger, messier cases,” as he put it. A 1992 graduate of DePaul University School of Law who worked for six years with Schoenberg, Fisher, Newman & Rosenberg in Chicago, he has made appellate work his specialty and has a strong background in complex litigation. He authored and supervised 20 appeals during his tenure at Robinson Donovan, in topics ranging from commercial disputes to tax-abatement issues.

Weinberg, a graduate of Harvard and Northeastern University Law School, has worked on a number of insurance and wrongful death cases in his career, many resulting in large settlements for clients. He became one of Robinson Donovan's top litigators, often working in tandem with Garber. “We were involved in many of the cases that had complex legal issues and lots of bumps in the road,” said Weinberg. “We became a unit.”

The two were members of the team at Robinson Donovan that represented plaintiffs in a suit against United Airlines – a case that was eventually settled – in the death of Steven Sommes, who suffered cardiac arrest on a flight from Boston to San Francisco. The claim against the airline was based on its failure to have an automatic external defibrillator (AED) on board, and the case was credited with helping to prompt airline industry adoption of defibrillators. It also earned Robinson Donovan, as well as the individual lawyers involved, a reputation as leaders in that evolving subspecialty of the law.

Today, Weinberg and Garber have what they call “joint custody” of several defibrillator cases with Robinson Donovan. These include a suit against the Wellbridge Health Club in Boston brought by the family of Herbert Fruh, who suffered cardiac arrest while exercising at the club. Fruh has sustained severe brain damage, according to the complaint, because the club was not equipped with an AED, and precious minutes were lost in efforts to revive him.

Another case involves the death of Brett Stone, a former All-American swimmer who suffered cardiac arrest on a Frontier Airlines flight at the age of 28. The suit claims that Frontier was too slow in equipping its planes with AEDs after all the major U.S. airlines had already done so.

Trial Run

In addition to the defibrillator cases, Weinberg and Garber expect to handle a good deal of work in insurance and medical malpractice. Several clients they represented while at Robinson Donovan will stay with them in their new venture – it is commonplace in law that clients follow the attorney, not the firm – and they have seen several new referrals.

And for now, the partners are relying mostly on referrals and word of mouth to get their venture off the ground. They have taken out a few ads in Lawyers Weekly and the Daily Hampshire Gazette to announce their presence, but for now they plan no large-scale marketing efforts.

To date, they have spent much of their time building out their offices – they had to add a conference room onto the original space – and also hiring help (a staffer at Robinson Donovan agreed to join them) and sorting through a number of cases that have been offered to them by area lawyers – most of them not worth trying.

“Some funny things happen when new lawyers come to town,” said Weinberg. “You see a lot of what are called ‘canine cases’ that lawyers will try to clean out of their kennels. We’ve had a lot of colorful offers, but we’re smart enough to sniff out the dogs.”

The two said they chose Northampton in part for lifestyle reasons – Weinberg lives in that city; Garber, a resident of Suffield, Conn., has agreed to make the commute – but also because there is a large amount of business to be gained in Hampshire County, as many Springfield-based firms are realizing.

Indeed, several firms, including Robinson Donovan, Cooley-Shrair, Annino Draper & Moore, and others, have opened offices in Northampton. “Many people are realizing that, while Springfield is certainly the hub of this area, there is a good deal going on in Northampton, Amherst, and other towns in Hampshire County – this to where the real growth.”

When asked what they miss about the large-firm setting, the two quickly listed the collegiality that exists in the larger firms, and the sharing of ideas among a number of very capable lawyers. “The more minds, the better,” said Garber, who told BusinessWest that this is one of the reasons why the two will try to add more names to the door in the years to come.

What they don’t miss are the bureaucracy and what Weinberg called the “overhead monster.”

Final Arguments

There are perhaps a half-dozen conference rooms at Robinson Donovan, all of them much larger than the one Weinberg and Garber have carved out of their space on King Street. But it’s their conference room – they designed it, they paid for it, and they water the plants that sit in the corners.

“When you’re a partner with a large firm, you have ownership,” Weinberg said. “But this is a different kind of ownership.”

That’s why a $2,500 check can generate the same excitement as a $17 million settlement.

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