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Firms find creative ways to celebrate the season

By SYLVIA ADCOCK, Staff Writer

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Attorney Kent Auberry dresses as Santa for his firm's Christmas party.

Attorney Kent Auberry dresses as Santa.

Last year, the Greensboro office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice scaled back a bit on its annual holiday party. The staff gathered in the self-decorated office to snack on catered light hors d’oeuvres.

This year, the social committee made a few changes.

“We had a great time, but people were like, ‘Well, we work here all week,'” said Mary Schiavone, receptionist and member of the social committee. “We listened.”

For 2010, the office spent a little more on the party, renting a club downtown.

“We put up all the lights that we had used last year,” Schiavone said. “So it was still cost-effective.” But instead of appetizer fare, the guests had a catered dinner that included roast beef and chicken.

Law firms across the state tightened their belts in 2009 after a year of recession-forced layoffs and cutbacks. This year, although the slow economy is still staring the profession in the face, some firms – such as Womble Carlyle’s Greensboro office – decided to loosen up the purse strings a little, while others continued to scale back.

Gary Joyner, the managing partner of Kilpatrick Stockton’s Raleigh office, said he hosted a party in his home as he did last year. But unlike last year, this year’s party was catered and also included a piano player.

At Smith Moore Leatherwood’s Raleigh office, Brad Risinger said the firm wanted to be frugal. “The emphasis is to protect a nice bonus for the staff,” said Risinger, the managing partner of the Raleigh office.

The office hosted a catered reception that included door prizes and red velvet cake for its 50 attorneys and staff, but kept it in the office.

“The lawyers can’t take any credit for this,” Risinger said. “We have a committee of staff that plans events throughout the year with the goal of getting us together to remind us that we are fortunate to be together.”

At the firm’s Greensboro office, employees are traditionally treated to a catered lunch. But one of the real hits of the holiday season was attorney Kent Auberry’s portrayal of Santa Claus. The employees get to bring their kids and grandkids to the office one evening for a pizza party, and instead of seeing Santa at the mall, they get to see him in the office.

Auberry said his portrayal is particularly effective because he knows many of the children. “I can say, ‘I hear you made the basketball team,'” he said.

A business lawyer in his day job, Auberry was tapped for the Santa gig about 15 years ago. “I hope I was picked by temperament rather than physique,” he said.

Several years ago, the firm added Mrs. Claus. “At a certain age Santa freaks out some kids,” Auberry said, and the female version is a little less intimidating. He said a lot of the kids pooh-pooh the mall Santa because they know the real one is at mom’s or dad’s office.

At Withrow & Terranova, an intellectual property firm in Cary, founder Ben Withrow said he’s a fan of holiday parties and believed that continuing the firm’s tradition was a showing of confidence.

“I feel like cutting back sometimes brings fear,” he said. “Saving $2,000 or $3,000 on a party wasn’t worth it.”

The firm has had a tradition in the past few years of taking employees out to a show – last year it was “Phantom of the Opera” and this year “Young Frankenstein” – at the Durham Performing Arts Center. The firm reserved an area in the venue and had it catered “so everybody could have an opportunity to visit and hang out and be merry, and then go into the show,” Withrow said.

The celebration included a cake based on the “Young Frankenstein” poster with the character holding a piece of paper. “The cake people were able to print something that looked like a patent,” Withrow said.

Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog in Raleigh hosted a “casino night” for its employees similar to the one held last year, with event also raising money for Hospice of Wake County.

“They built a new facility around the corner from us,” said Lorraine Stephenson, human resources director. “We wanted to be active in the community, and we sort of decided that would be the charity our firm would be affiliated with.”

The firm also provided plenty of opportunities for the employees to enjoy themselves. The event was held off-site with a buffet that included shrimp and grits and sausage Creole.

Last year, Hunton & Williams’ Charlotte office scaled back from its traditional blowout that often involved a live band at a country club. But last year’s simpler celebration proved so popular with the employees that they may continue the tradition no matter what the economy does.

Instead of a fancy party, employees were treated to lunch at Customshop, a downtown Charlotte restaurant, on a Friday. “Then, after lunch, we got to go home,” said Topsy Wallace, the firm’s receptionist.

“We don’t have to buy new outfits, we don’t have to drag out our spouses, and we get to go home,” she said.

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