Eleven lawyers walked into a conference room … No, it’s not the beginning of a lawyer joke. It was the start of a lively and informative CEO Roundtable discussion at Inside Columbia magazine headquarters, hosted by The Callaway Bank.
The attorneys present represented specialties from across the legal spectrum, from environmental policy to real estate, from family law to criminal defense. They came from firms both large and small. But for all their differences, they had one thing in common: they were proud to practice law in Columbia.
The Way Things Are
Moderator and Inside Columbia’s CEO Publisher Fred Parry began the discussion by asking the group how the legal profession had changed in recent years.
“It’s crowded,” said Jeff Parshall of Ford, Parshall & Baker. “If you look in the phone book or the Boone County bar roll, and it says, what, 300 plus?”
“It’s over 600,” said Dave Knight of Dave Knight Law Offices. “It’s 675 or something like that.”
“I don’t think lawyers retire,” Parshall said.
Parry asked if that tendency to linger in the profession past the normal retirement age is a new industry trend.
“I don’t think so,” said Skip Walther of Walther, Antel & Stamper. “I think most lawyers tend to practice beyond 65 and all judges have to retire at 70, but most of those guys seem to take senior status and continue to try cases. I expect all of us will continue to practice just as the people who came before us. All lawyers in rural areas seem to be older.”
Walther went on to explain that fewer young attorneys are choosing to practice in the rural communities where they grew up. Because of this exodus, the average age of attorneys in rural areas is increasing and those who remain in rural communities are tasked with taking on every kind of case.
Aimee Davenport with Evans & Dixon, who specializes in environmental law, agreed that the legal profession has become more crowded. “And because it is more crowded, I see more lawyers specializing and looking for a niche to practice in. I joined Evans & Dixon in the fall last year and the firm came into Columbia to provide more specialty areas because Columbia can start to support this. I’m finding — at least among my peers and younger — I see more specialties.”
“I agree,” said Tim Harlan of Harlan, Harlan & Still. “You used to see no one specialize — you couldn’t afford to. I think now it’s becoming in some cases mandatory. A lot of things lawyers did 30 years ago are totally gone.”
Greg Copeland of The Copeland Law Firm noted that, “Every year for the last 30 years, I’ve narrowed the scope of my practice, and I’m glad I did that. I think that it’s good for clients. I think clients get better and more competent representation when people narrow the focus of their practice instead of being a jack-of-all-trades.”
With so many attorneys vying for business, the Roundtable participants report that some are willing to work for less.
“I’m told that in St. Louis and Kansas City, people take cases for $45 or $50 an hour because they have to,” Harlan said. “I think that’s a big change.”
Harlan cites the emergence of mega-firms that take business from smaller firms by offering to handle all of a client’s legal needs. “You deal with the tax lawyer, the real estate lawyer, the document-drafting lawyer, the transaction lawyer,” he said. “Before long, you end up dealing with four or five lawyers on the other side and you never know really who they are.”
With so many practicing lawyers out there, there must be a growing need for legal assistants, right? Wrong, according to Dan Simon of Brown, Willbrand, Simon, Powell & Lewis. “I couldn’t get by without my legal assistant,” he said, “but the young lawyers in our office could probably never use one. And so what used to be a very cherished job as a legal secretary or assistant is something that’s going the way of the dinosaurs. One of the real big St. Louis firms just offered every legal assistant in the firm an early retirement buy-out. They’re going to get rid of all of them.”
“Why?” Parry asked.
“The lawyers type their own stuff,” Simon said. “They do their own word processing. I think it’s very inefficient but I can’t convince others in our office that it is.”
“One thing we haven’t mentioned is the Internet,” said Milt Harper of Harper, Evans, Wade & Netemeyer. “It’s revolutionizing everything. The Internet is driving so much of the business. There are no phone books anymore. You get out of law school and you can set up a law office overnight. You don’t need the legal assistants; all you need is the technology, and if you have the Internet and a good enough website, you’ll have lots of clients. And we’re sitting here having to compete with that. In Columbia, every four years or so this population turns over by about 52 percent. They don’t know who Dave Knight is, or Milt Harper or Dan Simon. They don’t know and don’t care. They’re on the Internet looking. That’s how they’re choosing you. If you’re a good marketer, you can be very successful.”
“You know what I think it all boils down to?” Knight asked. “We’re losing the idea of being professionals … and I’m the one guy sitting here without a tie! I think that we should be at least on the level of the doctors. I feel that that’s eroding. There’s less camaraderie than there used to be. We used to know who did good or bad and now it’s hard to figure out.”
“The economic downturn of 2008 caused a lot of law firms to lay off lawyers, caused a lot of lawyers to hang out their own shingles,” Walther said. “You’ve got an awful lot of attorneys who aren’t associates at any of the firms. So much of what I got out of being an associate was learning from senior attorneys how to practice law, and not just the technical aspects, but the professional aspects. A lot of young lawyers don’t have the luxury of mentors like that.”
Copeland says civility can go a long way in the legal profession. “I think that when I deal with other attorneys in town, it’s always civil. It’s a rare bird that the guy is a jackass, because it doesn’t help the case and it certainly doesn’t help the client. If I have a case against Jeff, if we can talk, we can cut through a lot of crap and save the client a pantload of money. The civility among attorneys — it’s good for us, we live a little longer and the client’s bills are a little less.”
After The Recession
Parry followed up on Walther’s comment about the economic downturn, and asked the group if there were other ways the legal profession had been affected by the recession.
Adam Patchett of Bush & Patchett recalled a 2008 job interview. “In 2008 was when I came to work for Bill Powell and when I interviewed with him, he told me they did absolutely zero litigation. And I came in and my first day was a mechanics lien litigation and I did that for about 2½ years, maybe even three years. I never aspired to be a litigator, but I had to be for a little while.”
Parshall said his firm’s litigation business was relatively unaffected by the economy, although he saw larger firms laying off people when the recession hit.
“If litigation wasn’t affected, certainly real estate was,” Walther said.
Knight agreed. “The lawyers, by our own negligence, have let real estate get away from us. All you have to do is look at the abstracts of titles and if you go back through there, I guarantee you, starting in 1931 when the Depression hit, you had quiet title suit after quiet title suit, and you hardly have one now because you just insure over. But the lawyers needed work and they were spending their time doing that. And that’s a good example of how when the economy is going down, you find something to do.”
The group was interested in hearing what Robert Hollis of Van Matre, Harrison, Hollis, Taylor & Bacon had to say on the subject, since his specialty is real estate.
“From 2004 — when I started — to 2008, it was fun,” Hollis said. “We were buying and developing and that’s what I did.” But, he said, things went south quickly for some of his clients. “I was helping them interpret the contact we had written for them the first time because now they were in default. So we were dealing with foreclosures and bankruptcy and litigation. My practice changed drastically.”
A Little Free Advice
Parry asked the group to offer their best advice to Columbia’s business owners.
Walther didn’t hesitate in his response. “Employment issues,” he said. “Wage-and-hour laws. A lot of employers don’t pay overtime when they ought to. There are boutique agencies in the legal profession where class-action lawsuits are being filed against large employers on wage-and-hour law claims, which can be extremely lucrative for those boutique firms. Then you’ve got the Family Medical Leave Act issues. All those are important to big employers because that’s a potentially huge liability for them.”
But, Harlan said, “those aren’t the moneymakers, in general. People aren’t out doing wage-and-hour cases for Dairy Queen not paying 10 cents an hour for uniforms.”
Patchett said he’s keeping a close eye on the Affordable Care Act for his clients. “Most of my clients are concerned about Obamacare and other restrictions like that,” he said. “I had a few clients who have been paying attention to the number of employees. We represent a lot of contractors that during the winter months may not have very many employees and during the summer, they may have a lot. We look at the definitions of who actually is an employee for purposes like that.”
Davenport recommends that her fellow attorneys look locally first when they’re referring clients to a specialist. “Look to see if the specialty area is here in town first. We’ve got new areas we can assist in, and any area you may not feel comfortable in, like environment or intellectual property, banking and lending, bankruptcy. It’s important to keep our money here and in the community.”
Hollis offered advice to business owners and property owners, specifically those in the downtown area. “I would encourage them to pay attention to the decisions being made by the current City Council and city administration. The specific issue is that land uses are going to be more restrictive and it’s going to apply to everyone. I would encourage all property owners to pay attention.”
Tom Schneider of Jones, Schneider & Stephens added: “I would just generically tell them to call earlier rather than later. Don’t wait until it’s a problem, and usually you can be better off.”
Patchett agreed. “I would encourage local business owners who have a legal issue or legal concern to reach out to their local attorney early,” he said. “I know we talked about the Internet earlier, but I’ve had a few people call and come in to the office with some form that they’ve found on the Internet with a real estate contract that’s in Montana and pieced it together and maybe already executed it, and now we’re at the end of the process trying to clean everything up. If you have an issue, reach out to your local attorney.”