Water was still pouring into the city of New Orleans from the 17th Street Canal levee breach following Hurricane Katrina when the Baker Donelson law firm decided to open its Baton Rouge office.
The firm had previously considered opening a small office here, primarily to accommodate a public policy specialist or two. But just three days after the storm struck and flood waters started rising in the Crescent City, the firm’s leadership realized it needed an office with a full-service presence in Baton Rouge.
“We decided to kind of put our flag out and start hiring and ended up deciding to put a full-service office here,” says managing shareholder Phyllis Cancienne.
At first, the Baton Rouge office had just four attorneys: Cancienne, who had lost her New Orleans Lakefront home to the flood; health care law specialist Donna Fraiche, who already had homes in both cities; and two other attorneys, both of whom left a competing firm to join Baker Donelson.
“We were sort of an outpost at first,” Cancienne says. “Our managing partner was still operating out of New Orleans.”
That quickly changed as the firm grew, a process that happened by acquiring attorneys from other firms.
“We’ve been selective,” Cancienne says. “We’ve hired attorneys because they specialize in certain practice areas. We grew very quickly at first to about 10 attorneys. Now, we have 20 or so.”
Establishing a presence as a full-service law firm here has not been easy, as Cancienne will be the first to concede. Baton Rouge is well served by the legal profession, with a long list of several firmly rooted, old-line law firms. Several of New Orleans’ biggest firms—Jones Walker, Adams and Reese, McGlinchey Stafford, and Phelps Dunbar—also had a significant presence in Baton Rouge for years pre-dating Katrina.
“It’s very hard to reestablish yourself and move a book of business,” Cancienne says. “That’s the reality. People were dependent on their relationships and once those clients went back to New Orleans, the lawyers had to follow suit. I had to reinvent myself.”
Hiring local attorneys with pre-existing relationships has helped Baker Donelson gain a foothold in the local market. Cancienne and her colleagues have also developed their own relationships, which has come, in part, through hard work, and in part by networking and becoming involved in the community.
Cancienne, for instance, has two teenage children, who were only in early elementary when the family relocated here in 2005. She and her husband, Sam, have become active in their parish church, St. Aloysius, where the kids went to school, and have continued their involvement at St. Joseph’s Academy and Catholic High. She also volunteers with the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center.
“In the legal profession, it’s all about building relationships,” Cancienne says. “You have to establish relationships and that takes time.”
Making the move: Six companies that relocated or expanded after the storm