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Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd: Steady as she goes

By: Sharon McCloskey//April 13, 2012

Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd: Steady as she goes

By: Sharon McCloskey//April 13, 2012

Anne Ellefson had spent her entire legal career – nearly 30 years – in the Greenville office of Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd before being elected the firm’s managing director in 2008.  That made her the first woman to lead a large law firm in South Carolina.

She didn’t have much time to enjoy the moment, though.  “I walked in five minutes before the economy went in the tank,” Ellefson said.

Ellefson has since steered the firm through the recession and now, four years later, as the firm celebrates its 125th anniversary, she looks forward to continued growth in South Carolina and perhaps beyond.

“To the extent that we can expand our practice with more services for existing clients, and add new clients, so that we’re increasing – we use the term ‘growing the pie’ – that’s what we want to see,” she said.

Ellefson said she’s happy with how Haynsworth has emerged from the downturn.  The firm long had a conservative bent towards growth, and had weathered storms before, though none like what the legal industry has experienced over the past few years.  “We tightened our belt like everyone else,” she said. “We haven’t seen huge growth, but we’ve been steady.”

And numbers don’t tell the whole story. Although the firm is down 13 attorneys since 2010, that’s largely attributable to attrition and assimilation. “We didn’t come in and say we’re going to wipe out 13 people from the firm,” Ellefson said.  “There’ve been a variety of circumstances that have lead to the departures of those who’ve left. And we had a large class of associates that came in the year the downturn started, so we didn’t hire the next year, because we had some seven new attorneys to assimilate, which was big for us.”

The firm is hiring now.  “We’re back in the mode of summer clerks and are bringing in some new people,” she added. “We’ve hired a number of exciting laterals over the past 12 months that we feel great about, are adding an associate in the Greenville office, and have some more on the radar screen we hope to have coming in.”

Those laterals include Carlisle Roberts Jr., the former general counsel for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to head up its environmental practice; and Greenville practitioner Garrett Steck, who specializes in corporate and immigration law. The firm also added three people to its public policy practice group, Copper Dome Strategies.  “Two of the three are lawyers but don’t practice. They’ll do lobbying work,” Ellefson said. “That dramatically bumps up what we can do in that area.”

As cross-border growth becomes more common in the profession, Haynsworth has remained uniquely at home in South Carolina. It’s not that the firm is opposed to a merger – indeed, that’s how it evolved.

“We don’t have our eyes closed with regards to any option, whether it be in state or out of state,” Ellefson said.  “The strategic options that have made sense for us in the past 125 years have been in the state.  But that’s not to preclude more regionalization, and we actually do some work outside the borders, so we’re open to it.”

For the moment, though, the firm is focused on expanding its practice areas with lateral and new associate hiring, maintaining its steady growth, and keeping in mind the lessons all firms have learned from recent history.  “The whole industry has realized that we’ve got to work harder to be successful – there’s more competition and corporate clients are more sensitive to alternative fees and controlling legal costs,” Ellefson said.  “So we just have to be smarter.”

— Sharon McCloskey

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