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Law firm evolution hints how Evan Bayh could follow in his father's footsteps - again

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It all began with three prominent attorneys 30 years ago.

But what started in late 1980 remains relevant today and raises an interesting hypothetical about what could happen again. An Indianapolis law firm created three decades ago is now dissolving, and a look back at how it first came to life offers possibilities for what could be ahead for the Indiana legal community and outgoing U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh.

As he leaves office and takes a nostalgic look back at the local law firm he once worked at briefly, the departing senator’s situation in some ways mirrors how his own father left office in December 1980 and came back to Indiana to make a bipartisan-style move and create a law firm that remained intact for three decades.

Which begs the question: Could it happen again, the son following in the father’s footsteps?

No one, including the outgoing senator, knows the answer. But it’s intriguing how similar his situation is to what came at his dad, former Sen. Birch Bayh, exactly 30 years ago and how that all seems to be intersecting now at the heart of the Hoosier legal community.

Blast from the Bayh past

After Birch Bayh lost his re-election bid to Dan Quayle in November 1980, he returned to Indiana, dusted off his shingle, and began mapping out a plan to finally pursue a long-delayed dream of starting his own law firm.

“I’d planned at one point to start a firm across from the courthouse in Terre Haute and be a trial lawyer. But something got in the way of that, so here I was many years later and finally going after that dream,” the 82-year old Bayh says now. “First thing I had to do was find lawyers I knew and could trust, and give credibility to what we were doing.”
 

tabbert Tabbert

The outgoing Democratic senator immediately tapped Don. A. Tabbert, a trusted friend and well-respected attorney who had also served decades earlier as the Republican-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana.

They talked and before long Bayh contacted a law school buddy of his, James B. Capehart, about joining with them in this new firm venture. The idea was to form a firm that would focus on public affairs and have offices in both Indianapolis and Washington D.C.

A fellow Democrat, Capehart also happened to have family ties to the Capeharts associated with the firm Krieg Devault Alexander & Capehart and the former senator who Birch Bayh had defeated for the Senate seat in 1962.

What they created was the firm of Bayh Tabbert & Capehart, which would go on to become a fixture in the legal community with deep business and political roots. Their clientele included Donald Trump, Bayer Corp., Clarian Health Partners, the city of Indianapolis and various health, insurance, and gaming industry clients.

The firm began disbanding in the mid-80s once Birch Bayh remarried and began spending less time in Indianapolis, the trio says.

“Circumstances just developed and the synergies we’d hoped could continue between Indianapolis and Washington just weren’t there,” Bayh said. “So, we changed our relationship and they went on without me.”

Capehart described the disbanding as a friendly parting without any animosity, and though he stayed a few years after Birch Bayh left he later stopped practicing full time and hasn’t gone back to practicing law.

The 75-year old Capehart said, “Really, this is what happens to law firms, naturally. They change.”

Firm evolution

Tabbert stayed to hold the firm together, bringing in a slew of prominent attorneys through the years. Before the elder Bayh left, he was able to practice with some of those attorneys that included his son, a young Evan Bayh, who was a University of Virginia School of Law graduate and worked at the firm in 1984 and 1985. That was before Evan Bayh’s entrance into state politics as Indiana secretary of state and governor and eventually taking the U.S. Senate seat his father had once held.

After 12 years, Evan Bayh is leaving the Senate. He has said his decision is due to widening partisan conflicts that make it nearly impossible to address the country’s business. Turning 55 on Dec. 26, the son is two years older than his father was at the time of leaving the Senate and forming Bayh Tabbert & Capehart.

So far, Evan Bayh has not revealed his professional plans or whether he might return to the Indianapolis legal community. While he has an inactive license and resides mostly in Washington, D.C., Bayh has said publicly he plans at some point to return to this state. He points to family reasons as why he doesn’t plan to run for governor in 2012, and he says he doesn’t plan to become a lobbyist.

One door closes, another opens

Whatever path Evan Bayh chooses, it most likely won’t involve the firm his father helped start and later evolved into the now-dissolving Tabbert Hahn Earnest & Weddle. Partners at the mid-sized firm announced Dec. 4 that four associates and five partners, including named partners Greg Hahn and Bob Weddle, are joining Bose McKinney & Evans at the start of 2011. The remaining four lawyers, as well as co-founder Tabbert, who now serves as of counsel, are going off on their own.

Working at the firm Veneble in Washington, D.C., Birch Bayh says he heard the news of the Indianapolis firm’s dissolution and immediately contacted Tabbert, who he’s tried to keep in touch with through the years.

“A large part of my heart has always stayed there in Indiana, but Don was and still is the pillar of strength for the firm standing through the years,” he said.

Tabbert said the firm decisions happened fast and some didn’t want to move to the city’s fifth largest firm, but once it became clear that the change would happen he had to start thinking about what his next move would be.

“I didn’t have a lot of time to decide this once I saw my firm was going to dissolve, and so I was looking to find a place because I’m full-time busy,” the 82-year old attorney said.

Tabbert says he has since made plans to become a solo practitioner. He is going to share office space on the north side of Indianapolis with a former partner at his firm, Mark K. Sullivan. The two won’t be working as partners or in an actual law firm, but instead will be sharing office space in a loose association as some lawyers do throughout the state. One paralegal from his current firm will be joining him at the new office, Tabbert said.

“I’m proud of how this firm has grown up in the past 30 years and had some offshoots, but I’m looking forward to what’s next,” he said. “What’s important is that the surroundings don’t interfere with your practice. A solo practice doesn’t bother me one bit, because when you’re practicing, you’re doing just that – practicing law.”•

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