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Before Stewart & Irwin closed, lawyers talked about mergers

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A nine-decade-old Indianapolis law firm’s abrupt closure remains unexplained as Stewart & Irwin P.C.’s leadership declined to discuss what led to the decision.

“It’s not important to go into,” said former Stewart & Irwin President Mary Schmid, now general counsel for Kleenco Maintenance/Construction Inc. in Alexandria.

Stewart & Irwin ceased practice without a public statement or acknowledgement. In early June, its top-floor offices at 251 E. Ohio St. in Indianapolis were locked after a private gathering a few days prior for people who had worked there.

Representatives of some clients listed on the firm’s website who spoke to IL on condition of anonymity said they received notice letters from the firm just a few days before its closing at the end of May. Those clients said they continue to have relationships with former Stewart & Irwin lawyers who moved on to different firms.

While Schmid and others in the firm’s leadership said nothing about the firm’s closing before and after it happened, rumors had swirled for weeks. Many attorneys, including equity shareholders, had been seeking an exit for months.

“This is something that came about somewhat gradually,”

said Donn Wray, a former Stewart & Irwin equity shareholder and one of six attorneys who migrated to Katz & Korin P.C. He called Stewart & Irwin’s decision to close “a natural consolidation of the legal marketplace.” Before the firm closed, Stewart & Irwin’s website listed 24 lawyers, including 13 shareholders and equity shareholders, about one-third fewer than five years earlier.

Multiple sources said that Stewart & Irwin and other firms had engaged in merger discussions dating back a year or more, but none worked out.

Several lawyers landed with Bose McKinney & Evans LLP. “We actually had begun discussions with various Stewart & Irwin attorneys over a year ago, and we were exploring different options,” Bose managing partner Jeff Gaither said.

“My sense is that Stewart & Irwin spoke to a number of different firms, including Bose, about potential mergers or about acquiring larger groups of attorneys, and that led to where we are,” he said.

Meanwhile, a former Stewart & Irwin of counsel attorney has sued the firm and former equity shareholders, claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees owed to him were wrongly withheld. Former firm partners said the complaint was baseless and unrelated to the closing.

Scott Treadway, now in private practice in Carmel, filed the pro se complaint alleging breach of contract and unjust enrichment in Marion Superior Court in May, noting in the complaint Stewart & Irwin’s rumored closing.

Treadway claims in the suit that he maintained his legal practice separate from Stewart & Irwin and rarely performed legal services for the firm. But he maintained an office there, utilizing the firm’s attorneys on an as-needed basis on cases he says he brought to the firm.

He claims he and the firm had an agreement in which Stewart & Irwin would collect his receivable fees, retain a portion to cover the firm’s administrative costs, then cut him a check for the remainder each month. “I think they found my relationship with them financially beneficial,” he said.

Treadway claims, among other things, that the checks stopped coming after he moved out of the firm’s offices in September 2010. He said he filed the complaint as a last resort when it appeared the firm might be closing. “I had hoped to get this resolved amicably, and it seemed relatively straightforward,” he said.

Schmid said the suit had nothing to do with the decision to close and was “wholly without merit.” Former partners named in the suit said it would be vigorously defended.

Former Stewart & Irwin partner Edward Bielski, who left the firm more than a year ago but is named in Treadway’s complaint, said he wished Treadway well but laughed off the litigation. “All you need is a pen to file a lawsuit in Indiana,” Bielski said. “I haven’t given it an iota of though except a chuckle.”•

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