Economy, competition fueled Wiggin & Nourie’s demise

The confluence of an unstable economy, a tightly competitive legal market and an ongoing exodus of more than half its lawyers since 2010 all contributed to the decision to close down Wiggin & Nourie, one of New Hampshire’s oldest law firms, its president said.The law firm, which was established in 1870 under the name Burnham and Brown, informed employees last Thursday it would be closing both its Manchester and Portsmouth offices. Clients are still in the process of being notified of the closing.The firm’s dissolution date is set for April 1, but L. Jonathan Ross, president of Wiggin & Nourie, said he expects most clients and attorneys will have already moved on by the end of February.Ross said there were 20 lawyers working at the firm at the time of the announcement, less than half the number of attorneys who worked there just a couple of years ago. The staff reduction left the firm with an unsustainably large overhead, said Ross, who has worked there since 1968.”If you have a debt structure that’s bigger than your legal manpower, then people’s earnings are decreased by that,” said Ross.The law firm has a legacy of graduating lawyers into public service, including New Hampshire Attorney General Michael Delaney, state Supreme Court Justice Gary Hicks, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Laplante and state Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara.At the time of the announcement, Wiggin & Nourie also employed about 20 non-attorney staff members, about half of whom are still working to help wind down operations.In a mid-2007 interview with New Hampshire Bar News, Ross talked about the firm’s then-recent physical expansion — which included a doubling of its space in Manchester and the addition of a Portsmouth office — as well as its plans to eventually employ at least 60 lawyers. It employed 47 lawyers at the time of that interview.Looking back on those goals now, Ross told NHBR, “The growth plan at the time was something we thought we could do, but over time it didn’t happen in the way we had planned. So you always wish for that crystal ball and you haven’t found it yet.”Ross is hopeful that the displaced staff will be able to find jobs in the state.”I would guess that every lawyer here will be employed in New Hampshire in a very short time, and I would think so for the staff as well,” he said. “One of the hardest parts of this, this place has been a family.”As for whether any attorneys will retire, Ross said he has no such plans, nor does he expect any other attorneys will.”Well, I’m the old guy, and I’m not, so I don’t think so.” — KATHLEEN CALLAHAN/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW

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