Youth movement: Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi is turning stereotype of stodgy law firm on its head

By Tom Bergeron
West Orange | Jun 11, 2018 at 7:25 am
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Melissa Salimbene doesn’t know what impresses her former classmates at Rutgers Law School more: That she has been at Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi P.C. for all 13 years of her legal career, or that she already is being groomed for greater things as a member of the management committee.

“When I told my friends I was going to be on the management committee, they were shocked,” she said.

Salimbene joined West Orange-based CSG (then known as Wolff & Samson) a few months after graduating from Rutgers Law in 2005. In January 2016, she was elevated to member. In January 2017, she was placed on the management committee.

She won’t turn 40 until later this year.

“The fact that, at this age, I can be giving my input and being part of making decisions for what this firm should be doing now and in the future is really exciting,” she said. “I think it speaks volumes about my firm.

“I don’t think I can say any of my classmates are still at the place where they started straight out of law school. And I’m the only one in such a position.”

She may be the only one of her classmates — but she’s not the only attorney at CSG identified early for his or her talents.

Lee Vartan, 40, is the co-chair of the firm’s Cannabis Law Group, a position Vartan started just months after coming to the firm earlier this year.

Marie Mathews, 40, is being groomed to be the firm’s general counsel.

Matt Beck, 41, is a practice group leader of the Litigation Group.

And Ron Israel, 46, is the firm’s current general counsel and also heads up the Malpractice Defense Group.

Managing member Dan Schwartz, 65, said the firm has made a conscious effort to identify young talent early and put them on a path to greater success.

Talking at an ROI-NJ editorial meeting with the five attorneys plus senior members of the firm, Schwartz said the philosophy not only benefits the individual attorneys, but the firm itself — especially during a tumultuous time in the industry that is seeing many firms struggle due to the lack of a succession plan.

“The legal landscape is very competitive,” Schwartz said. “Those firms that don’t innovate and look forward are the firms that are going to be left behind. We recognized, as the firm was aging, that we needed to bring in new blood.

“And it doesn’t just happen. You need to go out and look for the right people. Talented people. People with the right experience and people that will fit into our culture.”

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Some questioned why Jeff Chiesa returned to the firm in 2013 after serving as Gov. Chris Christie’s chief counsel, the attorney general of New Jersey and then as U.S. senator.

Many felt the firm was in turmoil, reeling from issues involving its former head, David Samson.

Chiesa, who had worked previously at the firm in 2010, didn’t see it that way.

He said he saw a firm that not only was righting its footing for the present day, but also the future.

“It’s the reason I came,” he said. “It was sold to me in terms of the transition that was happening. There was the opportunity to come into the firm and lead the firm and try to attract and recruit people that I would be comfortable working with, and to continue the professional excellence at the firm.”

At 52, Chiesa still has plenty of years in his leadership role. But, he said, that does not stop him from trying to recruit the top talent that may one day take his place.

“In order to bring other new, quality people into the firm, we have to give them the same pathway,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to recruit and retain the people we have been able to recruit and retain if you say, ‘I’ll be doing this until you come into my office one day and see my head laying on my desk.’

“You want to make sure that people see a pathway and that they are invested in the way you are invested. I think that’s proved to be very successful for us.”

Ross Pearlson, 56, felt the same way when he came to the firm in 2011.

“This vision that the firm has had didn’t begin with the rebranding of the name (in 2015),” he said. “That accelerated the process to some extent, but, when I first came to the firm, there was already a vision of transition. There already was a planning committee in place.”

Pearlson is now a co-chair of the Litigation Group. A group he has helped transform.

“We had a really solid generation of people who had been here a long time,” he said. “The rebranding has been purposeful. We brought in a highly talented, deep bench here.

“When I got here, I was one of the only white-collar attorneys at the firm. Now, we have Matt, a former federal prosecutor. We have one of the deepest and most talented white collar internal investigation benches in the state. And we’ve done that at all levels, both in the talent we’ve brought in and the talent that has grown here into various type of different leadership positions.”

Pearlson said doing so is easier said than done.

“Kudos to the firm in general and Dan in particular because he has recognized the need to transition — and not just talk about it, but give people levels of responsibility and leadership that are commensurate with their skills and talents and their futures at the firm. When the time comes when the people who have led the firm to the place where we are now decide to step down, these people will be ready.”

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Mathews wasn’t sure what to expect when she came to the firm in 2011 from Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York.

She heard a lot of great things during the interview process, but, well, that’s the interview process.

“I had to see if they meant what they said,” she joked.

“The reason why I wanted to come here is that there is room for growth and promotion and a future. Everybody said that in the interviews, but this place put their money where their mouth is.

“The plan is not just a plan, it’s not just on paper for these types of talking sessions, it actually happens. The firm makes it happen and encourages people like Melissa and me, and it brings Lee here, to put the plan in place.”

Because of it, Mathews said, she has never felt any professional jealousy from others at the firm. In fact, she said she feels a willingness to identify the next generation of leaders has been beneficial to everyone.

“I think it’s motivating for other people to see that it’s there and it’s possible,” she said. “You can see the steps that you have to take to get there. I don’t think it’s a competitive issue. I don’t think people are saying, ‘Why is it her and not me?’ I think it’s showing the way.”

Salimbene agreed.

“When I got promoted to member, numerous associates came up to me and said how excited they were because they saw me do it and Marie do it — particularly since we were females,” she said. “It made people say, ‘OK, I can do it and get to that level as well.’ ”

It was this type of atmosphere that attracted Beck and Vartan.

“I was looking for a place where I could find a culture that fit with me and would be supportive of me and work with talented people who would encourage people,” Beck said.

Beck, who had worked with Chiesa as a federal prosecutor, met with Chiesa — the attorney general for New Jersey at the time — to discuss the firm.

“I was looking for a place where they are doing some really sophisticated legal work but with decent people, where I can build a practice,” Beck said. “He said, ‘Do it.’

“Here I am, practice group leader five years in. But the thing that separates us, and I truly believe this, is the culture in every single person here is firm first. That’s the way we hire, that’s the way we act and, if you are a person who doesn’t fit that culture, you’re gone. No matter how much business you can generate, you’re not going to survive here.”

Vartan said he was impressed by how egos are checked at the door for the good of the firm.

Like Chiesa, Beck and Pearlson, he also is a former prosecutor. And that, he said, was welcomed.

“To have a second, third and fourth person with the same background come into the firm is not generally welcomed,” Vartan said. “This is unique. And the fact that we can string together four people in a group and market it as a group and (not the individuals) is something that I wanted to be a part of.

“That’s what makes coming to work every day fun, because I know I’m not doing this alone.”

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The veterans of the firm have made it a point to offer their experience. It is stressed from the top, said Adam Derman, 50, and a co-chair of the Litigation Group.

“There has always been an impetus on the next generation,” he said. “What we are trying to do with our younger generation is take the energy and their way of looking at things and work with them with the experience the older generation has, and sell that to the client.

“If we can take the experience and combine it with their energy, I think we can do more for the client.”

Salimbene said she has grown a lot in her short time on the management committee.

“It’s been a great opportunity for me to learn so much about how this firm works,” she said. “I had no idea.

“I came here and practiced law, but this made me realize this is a business, too, and that you always have to be thinking ahead. How do we keep this as the same firm that drew me here 13 years ago?”

Schwartz and Chiesa said the learning goes both ways.

“In terms of technology, there is no question (the younger generation) has spurred us to innovate,” Schwartz said. “We’re upgrading our document management system, we’re upgrading our financial software system.

“Technology has revolutionized the legal profession. When I started, Federal Express wasn’t in business and we were using carbon paper compared to what you have today. All of us are now 24/7. The younger people who have grown up with this have spurred this.”

Chiesa said he was most impressed by their economic development skills.

“They are much further ahead in networking — certainly more than I was,” he said. “When I meet law students, they already are talking about networking.

“I thought you just went to a law firm and did your work and the clients would be there when the older guys finished. These folks understand that’s not how it works.”

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Since 2013, CSG has hired approximately three dozen attorneys and now has 134. It’s planning to hire more soon, too.

The increase, which is more than two dozen new attorneys when you factor in replacements for retirements, has come with one idea in mind: Not only hire good people, but people who can — and want to — work together.

While that may seem like a basic requirement, Beck joked it’s not always easy to find.

“The law is not made up of the most charming, outgoing people,” he said. “This group is dynamic. You can see it in the hiring and the growth. We have fun here. You feel it. Someone who was interviewing here asked, ‘Did you guys set this up?’ ”

Beck and Vartan said the word is out with the younger generation.

“I think there’s a buzz about us,” Beck said. “We are always looking for talent. We are always getting calls. I am unbelievably confident that, over the next five years, so many people are going to want to work here that we are going to have our pick. And that’s going to allow our firm to thrive.

“The firms that aren’t dynamic are going to be left behind.”

Vartan has only been at CSG for seven months. But word, he said, has gotten around.

“There are people who are now reaching out to me,” he said. “They see that there’s a buzz around the firm.

“We come from an insular world. I’ve been getting a lot of calls from folks who are at U.S. Attorneys’ offices and are thinking about leaving, and they say, ‘There’s something going on at the firm, especially in relation to the rest of New Jersey firms.’

“I’m not necessarily the best marketer, but I feel 100 percent confident telling them there’s nowhere else I would go if I was in their situation.”

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