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WTC Law Firm Thrives on LI


September 11, 2005

Some 20 employees of the law firm Ohrenstein & Brown had made it into work on the 85th floor of 1 World Trade Center that ill-fated morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

After terrorists slammed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower nine floors above at 8:46 a.m., everyone scrambled into the offices of managing partner Geoffrey Heineman to decide what to do.

Heineman still remembers the acrid smell of smoke that burned his throat as he gathered his staff and managed to lead everyone down to the lobby. "You stood for periods of time in the stairwell," he said, noting that it took an hour to get down and make it out onto Church Street just minutes before 2 World Trade Center collapsed.

Founding partner Michael D. Brown recalls being on the FDR Drive in Manhattan, watching in disbelief as the fires burned.

Amid all the chaos, Brown and others regrouped at the Manhattan apartment of the firm's other founding partner, Fred Ohrenstein, a former State Senate minority leader. By the end of the day, all but two of the firm's employees were accounted for.

During the next months, co-workers grappled with not only with reconstructing the practice, but also with the loss of those two colleagues, Ann.Marie Riccoboni and Valerie Murray, who are believed to have died on the way in to work.

The recovery from the attacks wasn't easy, but the partners also had to address how the firm would continue to operate and serve its clients. Today, four years later, Ohrenstein & Brown, which specializes in insurance law, has survived and thrived by expanding on Long Island.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the firm had a small, nine-employee branch office in Garden City barely the size of two conference rooms. But it had telephones and working computers, so it was a good base. Now, Garden City is home to about 35 to 40 people, and is growing. In fact, Great Neck resident Brown and Garden City resident Heineman just last month moved their main offices to Long Island where they intend to spend more time, while keeping space in Manhattan.

"We said, 'What do we want to do and how do we want to do it?'" Brown recalls four years later. "We thought there was a real market out there."

The firm has not abandoned the Manhattan market at all. In fact, much of the expansion on Long Island has been from new clients as well as New York City-based customers who have cases or issues on Long Island.

The law firm was among many tenants that left downtown Manhattan. In fact, according to a survey by the real-estate consulting firm TenantWise, about 77 percent of major tenants in destroyed buildings moved out of downtown. TenantWise chief executive M. Myers Mermel noted the downtown office market has recovered somewhat since the terrorist attacks but still is weak.

Certainly, there have been some high-profile cases of World Trade Center tenants returning to downtown, such as the law firm of Thacher, Proffitt & Wood, which is now in Two World Financial Center. But by and large, most tenants that have survived the attacks have gone to Midtown.

Getting Ohrenstein & Brown back up to full speed wasn't an easy task. A sympathetic client, insurance broker Hub International, provided them space in the Chanin Building near Grand Central Terminal. That lease ended in October 2001.

Brown estimates that the firm's employees in some form or another were moved seven times over nine months, improvising by using cell phones, rigging network connections.

"Through 2002, there wasn't a single week that we didn't see problems," Brown said. "Our computers were down, our telephones were down -- or both."

Eventually, the firm signed a lease for One Penn Plaza in December 2001 and moved into the 46th floor in March, 2002.

Luckily, the legal documents the firm created were backed up, but paperwork from opponents was harder to replace.

"You find how resilient you are and how resilient the people in this office are," Brown said. "You also appreciate the patience and resilience of your clients."

The firm, which does everything from employment-discrimination law to advising businesses on what types of insurance to buy, also has rejected the idea of selling or merging with another firm.

"We do that deliberately because we like to think we've created our own culture," Brown said. "That is one of the reasons our firm was able to cope with 9/11."

Now, the firm is in a 10-year lease at 1010 Franklin Ave., just next door to its once-satellite office. Back when the firm moved to 1 World Trade Center in 1998, Brown remembers that he thought the rent was a great deal. But now, its expanding Garden City operations comes out to less than half the price of its Penn Plaza space. And with a Long Island Rail Road stop three blocks away, it's an easy commute between the two locations.

The firm didn't consider moving back downtown because it would have been too traumatic for employees. As he gazes out of the Penn Plaza windows looking downtown, Brown still replays in his mind the image of the smoke rising from the Twin Towers.

But Brown, who once worked there in 1973 when he was with the state special prosecutor's office, said he believes the new buildings going up will rent out. "I have no doubt that those offices will be tenanted," he said.

Brown recalls nostalgically some of the personal touches of life in lower Manhattan, including the craft fairs and the orchid shows held in the walkway over West Street.

As for that day four years ago, Brown noted, "I don't think you ever get over it. You put it into perspective."

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