Law firm’s leader finds its size is just right

For Craig Yunker, Lacy Katzen LLP is just the right size.

The law firm is “big enough to have a diversity of talent but small enough to give you personal service.”

The owner of CY Farms LLC in Genesee County started using the Rochester law firm some 20 years ago on the advice of his friend Peter Rodgers. He had been using the legal services of a sole practitioner in that county. But his farm business was growing and Yunker felt he needed broader and more sophisticated legal services.

Rodgers, a trial lawyer who is Lacy Katzen’s managing partner, has worked at Lacy Katzen since 1976. Lacy Katzen, then called Lacy, Katzen, Greene & Jones, gave Rodgers his first job out of law school.

The relationship that developed between Yunker and Lacy Katzen typifies what Rodgers sees as the firm’s virtually unique standing among the city’s law firms. Rodgers sees his firm as sort of reflecting the Goldilocks tale—neither too big nor too small but sized just right to give local small and midsize clients personal service and attention.

Lacy Katzen ranked ninth on the Rochester Business Journal’s most recent list of law firms. It employs 90 in all and has 25 lawyers, including 15 partners. The attorney roster includes a typical range of talent, including commercial litigators, bankruptcy, trust and estate, municipal law and real estate specialists. It also includes family law, criminal and personal injury practitioners. Rodgers’ specialties include personal injury, product liability and medical malpractice work.

Lacy Katzen was founded in 1950 by Herbert Lacy and Leon Katzen. Lacy died several years ago. The firm lists Katzen, who is now in his 80s and who Rodgers calls a key mentor, as its senior counsel.

Rodgers calls Lacy Katzen a regional firm. But he does not mean regional in the sense usually used by local business people to indicate operations extending to Western and Central New York, the Southern Tier or even to Albany or New York City. Rodgers means regional in a smaller, more local sense.

Lacey Katzen has eight offices. Five—the downtown headquarters and offices in Pittsford, Greece, Hilton and Charlotte—are in Monroe County. The other three are in Bergen in Genesee County, Canandaigua in Ontario County and Ontario in Wayne County.

While some might see such a heavy concentration of relatively closely spaced offices as inefficient, it makes perfect sense to Rodgers. He sees the benefit in convenience to a Genesee County client in being able to do business in Bergen instead of having to drive to Rochester as outweighing any downside with maintaining that office.

Two of what Rodgers describes as the firm’s “network of regional offices for client convenience” are in municipalities—Hilton and Bergen—whose governments are Lacy Katzen clients. The firm’s business clients are typically private, closely held firms. Like the firm itself, they are not too big but not necessarily that small.

Yunker’s CY Farms, for example, encompasses cash-crop operations; the Batavia Turf Farm, which sold the sod to make lawns at Frontier Field, SUNY College at Brockport and Rochester Institute of Technology; and a replacement-heifer farm, which for a fee houses and raises cows for dairy farmers. In all, CY Farms controls some 7,000 acres in the county.

Personal connections

Rodgers and Yunker met when, as a hoary joke goes, they went to different schools together.

Yunker, who grew up on a small dairy farm in Elba, Genesee County, where he still lives, graduated from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 1972.

Rodgers grew up on the outskirts of Buffalo. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from Fordham University in the Bronx in 1973. He and Yunker met when both dated University of New Hampshire coeds—their future wives—who were roommates.

A personal connection to Rodgers as well as a family connection to the firm also led Applied Energy Solutions LLC CEO Vern Fleming to Lacy Katzen.

As a teenager, Fleming says, he got into several minor scrapes with the law. “Riding my dirt bike somewhere where I wasn’t supposed to be,” he says.

Fleming’s father called his lawyer, Rodgers, who got Fleming off with no lasting damage to his record.

Some 20 years later, in 2000, a still grateful Fleming was general manager of CEN Electronics Inc., a company in Livingston County whose British owner had decided to sell off. Fleming wanted to buy it and turned to Rodgers, who had been elected Lacy Katzen’s managing partner in 1998. The law firm helped Fleming secure financing and arrange a management buyout.

“They did everything. We didn’t use another third party,” Fleming says.

For a firm of Applied Energy Solution’s size—65 to 70 workers—Lacy Katzen’s size and profile is an ideal match, Fleming says.

“They have the horsepower to do anything we need,” he says, “(but are) still small enough to be really personal. I’ve got everybody’s cell. I can call Peter any time of the night or day.”

The firm’s combination of small-town folksiness and big-firm competence is at least partly a reflection of Rodgers’ leadership, Fleming says. “(He is) a solid guy, a great guy, a good father and husband, honest and someone I hold in the highest regard.”

Growing up, Rodgers sometimes thought about taking over the family business—a small supermarket on Clinton Street near Buffalo’s downtown, one of a nearly vanished type of independently owned grocery that used to dot city neighborhoods.

Rodgers and his three siblings—two sisters and a brother, all of whom were within a few years of Rodgers in age—grew up working in the store, stocking shelves, unloading trucks, sweeping the aisles and waiting on customers.

“My dad and mom were real entrepreneurs,” Rodgers says. “But they placed a great value on education.” When he expressed any interest in continuing in the grocery business, Rodgers says, his parents encouraged him to stay in school.

Rodgers and his siblings attended Catholic elementary schools. For high school he went to Canisius High School, a Jesuit-run secondary school for boys.

“It was an excellent experience,” Rodgers says. “The Jesuits really challenged us.”

Rodgers was on the Canisius track team and worked on the school newspaper. He still tries to run several times a week and enjoys bicycling with his wife, Pamela, with whom he takes ambitious summertime rides circling Keuka or Skaneateles lakes. The couple have two sons, Stephen, 26, and John, 22.
Young legal eagle

Rodgers was set on a legal career from an early age. It was not something discussed much among the siblings, he says, but a brother and a sister also are practicing attorneys.

He cites attorney Louis Nizer, author of the best seller “My Life in Court,” as an early influence for him. Rodgers describes his teenage self as a sort of courtroom groupie.

To get to Canisius’ Delaware Avenue campus, located an hour from his neighborhood, Rodgers took two city buses. The transfer point fell at the front door of Erie County Courthouse in downtown Buffalo. Rodgers often wandered into the courthouse, where he would watch trials, following his favorite attorneys’ trial maneuvers as closely as some fans might track a favorite ball player, he says.

Reciting the names of two of those stars—criminal lawyer Herald Price Fahringer and personal injury attorney Philip Magner Jr., both of Lipsitz, Green, Fahringer, Roll, Salisbury & Cambria LLP in Buffalo—Rodgers still becomes nearly misty-eyed.

He also was interested in medical issues.

“I would find cases dealing with medical issues,” he says. “I even thought about becoming a doctor, but the legal profession won out.”

Not everyone considers trial lawyers, especially those like him who do personal injury, product liability and medical malpractice work, admirable, Rodgers concedes.

Some critics decry out-of-control jury awards and see trial attorneys as sophists ready to take any position for a profit. But Rodgers sees them as defenders of the weak.

“The job of a trial attorney is to explain injustice to a jury,” Rodgers says. “If you’re not committed to the client, don’t take the case.”

As a teen, Rodgers says, he walked unannounced into a downtown Buffalo law firm and asked if a lawyer, any lawyer, would talk to him about the legal profession. The request was relayed and a young lawyer emerged. It was John LaFalce, then an associate at Jaeckle, Fleischmann & Mugel LLP and later to become the 14-term congressman representing Western New York.

“I don’t know whether he would remember it. I told him I was interested in being a lawyer,” Rodgers recalls. “He said he’d also gone to Canisius.”

After graduating from Fordham, Rodgers returned to Buffalo to attend University at Buffalo Law School. He moved back in with his parents, departing in his second year after he and Pamela married.

Rodgers first interviewed with Herbert Lacy in his last year of law school. After a 90-minute session with him, Rodgers met with Leon Katzen. When he graduated from law school in 1976, Rodgers started at Lacy Katzen, then a 10-lawyer firm. He made partner in 1980 and in 1982 became a member of the firm’s management committee.

He was elected Lacy Katzen’s managing partner in 1998, replacing Ronald Mittleman.

At the end of 2004, Lacy Katzen reorganized, dropping the names of Mittleman and former partner Louis Ryen from its letterhead. Ryen continues to maintain an active bankruptcy practice of counsel at Lacy Katzen.

Mittleman, who declined to comment for this article, left Lacy Katzen on Jan. 1, 2004. He now works out of a Rochester office as a partner of Syracuse-based Scolaro, Shulman, Cohen, Fetter & Burstein P.C., whose banking practice group he serves as chairman.

Rodgers also declined to speak about Mittleman’s departure, citing an agreement between him and Mittleman.

At the same time as Mittleman’s withdrawal, Lacy Katzen added two new partners, Glenn Fjermedal and David Rasmussen. A year earlier, Fjermedal and Rasmussen had left Harris Beach and started their own creditor-side bankruptcy and commercial law practice.

Harris Beach chairman Gunther Buerman also declined to speak for this article.

The addition of Fjermedal and Rasmussen has greatly enhanced Lacy Katzen’s creditors’ rights practice, Rodgers says. Partly because of the billings their practice has brought in bankruptcy, foreclosure and collections for lenders, he says, the firm’s revenues over the past three years have grown 40 percent.

Rodgers sees a bright future for the firm. He sees Lacy Katzen as continuing to prosper and grow by courting a smaller, more local client base rather than a roster of Fortune 500 clients.

“I see us maintaining a collaborative environment where there is value placed on (the firm’s attorneys’) individual contributions but where colleagues also help colleagues to serve our clients and become the best lawyers they can be,” Rodgers says. “Does that sound corny?”