Real estate group saw restructuring too late for Hill & Barlow

Issue February 2003 By Lynne Feibelmann

History, prestige and high-profile clients weren't enough to save Hill & Barlow.

Hill & Barlow's attempts this fall to reorganize by focusing more on individual practice groups last year and cutting back on staff did not prevent its liquidation.

Paramount to the firm's dissolution was the real estate practice group's decision to leave. One-third of the firm's attorneys worked in the real estate practice group, generating approximately 30 percent of Hill & Barlow's revenues.

The practice group made its move because the firm's restructuring came too late, according to former Hill & Barlow member Elliot Surkin, who specializes in real estate development, finance and tax.

"We didn't have confidence in going forward. The firm should dissolve," said Surkin, who served 35 years at Hill & Barlow. "I saw it happening over the years. The firm was not operating successfully. Five or 10 years ago it could have done something."

Surkin, along with other partners and associates in the real estate group, last month joined Piper Rudnick LLP, a national law firm with more than 900 attorneys that is opening its first office in Boston. By opening an office in Boston, the firm announced its plans to expand in New England. Surkin was appointed managing partner of the new Boston office.

Due to the real estate group's reputation in New England for representing complex equity and mortgage investments for high-rise office projects, mixed-use projects and community development projects, Hill & Barlow could not survive without it.

"The departure of the real estate practice group was equivalent to cutting off a member of the body," said Hill & Barlow member Richard W. Renehan. "It was an integral part of the firm."

Still Renehan believed steps could have been taken to preserve Hill & Barlow had the real estate group agreed to stay.

"It had been a down year at Hill & Barlow, but it is all very relative," said Renehan. "We were doing nicely - not as well as people would like, but with patience and belt-tightening the firm could have survived."

Surkin noted that the real estate group was not the first to actually leave the firm. In early January the agency, which represents authors and movie producers, announced its decision to join Fish & Richardson.