A recent hire by Harris Beach PLLC says a lot about the local economy and what the White Plains law firm sees as a lucrative legal niche.
Michael V. Curti, former corporate counsel for the City of Yonkers, was brought in to work with clients on public finance, economic development and municipal issues.
Locally, Harris Beach has grown from two attorneys to a dozen in eight years by focusing on municipal and real estate law. It plans to double its local staff in five years, according to Darius Chafizadeh, the office’s managing partner.
“In Yonkers, we’re talking about billions of dollars of development,” he said. “And they’re having a boom there in New Rochelle. And we’re seeing it in other places in the county, too.”
The firm is based in Rochester and has been around since 1856, but it had little presence in the region. When regional real estate development began to take off around 2010, Chafizadeh said, the firm opened offices in Westchester and on Long Island “to take part in what we assumed would be an economic boom.”
The boom, he said, happened. The local economy is still strong, and the firm needs to continue growing.
A lot of the work has been for industrial development agencies (IDAs) – local government bodies that grant tax relief and other benefits to real estate developers and industrial companies, in the belief that subsidies stimulate economic development.
Harris Beach represents 33 IDAs statewide, including a half-dozen in the Hudson Valley.
But depicting IDA and municipal work as a niche is a bit misleading, in that the work necessitates legal expertise in zoning, environmental reviews, land use issues, public finance, housing, clean energy, water and sewer infrastructure, traffic issues, schools, labor and more.
Recently, the office hired Christopher C. Palermo, who will also work in the Wall Street office on commercial litigation. He previously worked with Bleakley Platt & Schmidt in White Plains.
Municipal expertise is valuable not only to the local governments, but also to real estate developers and to corporations such as Pepsi and Regeneron that want to expand their facilities.
“What we’re seeing in our office,” Chafizadeh said, “is tied to the growth. So as projects are being set up, there is a need for our services.”
The business model is built on statewide collaboration and local hands-on representation. Harris Beach employs about 220 lawyers in 10 offices in New York State, as well as offices in New Haven, Connecticut, and Newark, New Jersey. For any given issue, Chafizadeh said, there is a lawyer with the experience and know-how to serve the client.
He claims that no other law firm in Westchester has a comparable combination of big- office expertise and small-office personalization in municipal law.
He also claims that the big Manhattan firms pose no threat, as they are more interested in representing Fortune 500 companies that can pay $1,200 an hour. He would not discuss his firm’s rates but said lower overhead costs enable it to offer municipal rates that are much lower than what Manhattan firms charge.
Working in municipal law means working with politicians and government officials and dealing with controversies and shifting political alignments.
Chafizadeh said the firm is apolitical.
“We are lawyers first,” he said. “Whether they change from ‘D’ to ‘R’ to ‘I’ or whatever, if we provide good, sound legal advice, then we can weather those issues.”
Whatever policy the local government wants to foster, “we’ll frame it so you can get that done. If it’s possible. If it’s not possible, we’ll tell you, ‘You can’t do it.'”
If clients are satisfied, he said, word-of-mouth recommendations will lead to more work and more clients.
The firm’s growth strategy is to continue tapping into the statewide expertise but to add lawyers in White Plains who can advise clients on their particular issues.
“With more lawyers, we can service our clients even better,” Chafizadeh said. “We’re always out there looking for the right lawyer to join us.”