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On The Pulse…Culturally Speaking

September 4, 2018

Defense Digest, Vol. 24, No. 3, September 2018

By Christopher E. Dougherty, Esq.*

This is the third piece in a series discussing the positive culture of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. As I have previously noted, I try to share observations and reflections about our firm from attorneys who have practiced in other firms. Because of those prior experiences, their perceptions about our firm are worth highlighting.

Here, I append remarks by Norman Haase. Norman joined us in March 2017. Norman has been practicing law since 1968. He is a perennial “Super Lawyer” in Pennsylvania and has been voted as a Top 100 Super Lawyer in Pennsylvania. He is also the past president of the Delaware County Bar Association.

Here are Norman’s unique perspectives about Marshall Dennehey after 50 years of practice.

 

My Journey To Marshall Dennehey

By Norman Haase, Esq.*

Fresh out of Villanova law school, happy to have a first job in a law firm, I began to observe—over several decades—key differences of law firm management while moving through the ranks of several law firms as an associate, partner, law firm founder and lateral partner. I witnessed the contrasts between small suburban firms and large Center City firms with offices in multiple states.

Suburban, One-Office Firms

I enjoyed great opportunities for immediate client contact, individual mentoring and early trial experience. After a few solo depositions, I defended an auto claim through jury verdict within my first year. Soon, I tried five claims through jury verdict in the same year. Then the firm merged with two others, resulting in new leadership, who emphasized profits over cooperation.

A law school classmate proposed liberating several clients from the merged firm to start our own firm. I borrowed $5,000 from my father-in-law for my share of a capital contribution toward rent, electric typewriters, desks, several months of salaries for a secretary and, most important, business cards and a sign with the names of the founding partners! As we shoveled the snow from our suburban sidewalk, we wondered if Abe Lincoln and his partner had such humble beginnings.

Small firms aren’t always profitable without taking on a wide range of legal issues. Thus, I soon found myself involved in divorces, child support, real estate, wills, probate and the like. Criminal defense work was fun, but I learned I better get the entire fee up front. The practice included corporation formation and federal estate tax reviews—a scary way to make a living. Then, a constant flow of work from one insurance carrier fell into my lap, and I began the transformation from generalist to a litigation specialist.

City-Based, Multi-Office Firm

Our three-man firm expanded from its Media base to offices in Philadelphia and Cherry Hill with a cooperative blend of male and female partners ably mentoring associates and agreeing upon fair compensation for all. We even adopted a fully paid, six-month sabbatical program for one partner at a time. But before a second partner could avail himself of that perk, a lateral partner arrived and soon pushed us into formula compensation. This led to disputes, major and minor, e.g., if A trains a paralegal resulting in less profits for the first year, then B works with that paralegal, is the first-year loss shared by A and B? What is the effect of A advancing $500k in costs while B, C and D have together advanced less than $25k? Thus a compensation formula designed to remove subjectivity and disagreements resulted in never-ending disputes. Those eventually caused firm dissolution.

Servicing clients with ever-growing volumes of work requires not only specialized expertise for each client’s issues, but also a team capable of providing concurrent, in-depth analysis and reporting. A small firm cannot readily manage the personnel or financial effects in sudden increases and decreases in client assignments.

Having learned that lesson, I sought to move my clients and staff team to a large, city-based firm with offices that could handle my expanding client base. Compensation would be steady with bonus possibilities. My proposal that different office rent costs should be homogenized for an equal overhead effect—because we all attracted business on the basis of having multiple offices—was met with enthusiasm by high-rent office partners and disappointment by partners in distant county offices. Yet, I was thrice elected to the firm’s management committee as the first lateral partner and first from a suburban office.

Over almost two decades, I observed declining trends in insurance assignments and profitability due to several factors beyond our control: expansion of in-house firms, audits, changes in the law and reverse auction bidding.

I observed leadership adopting accounting views that emphasized personal rewards over career development for all. I proposed forming a trial school to promote the skills of associates at no cost to the firm. No one responded with encouragement or an offer to assist. Compensation guidelines for many were ignored to assure steadily increasing compensation for a few.

By the end of 2016, it was time for me to move on; hopefully, my team would follow. They (a partner, an associate and three staff) were in unanimous agreement, even though it meant changing from a 10-minute commute to boarding a train for almost an hour each way. On behalf of the team, I wanted us to associate with a financially secure firm, well respected within our profession and by clients, with a deep trial bench, and offices in multiple jurisdictions where our clients have business. Compensation would be based on dedicated, cooperative efforts, but no specific formula.

Having known Dan Ryan for several decades and the reputation of his trial team, Marshall Dennehey was my first choice. But, business due diligence required exploring multiple options. So I met with several firms. Would our clients fit among theirs? Would our team fit their culture? We received multiple offers.

Our choice was easy. Before and after our transition to Marshall Dennehey, every promise made has been kept. Every question has been promptly answered. After our first month, I asked, “Where are the jerks?” The response, “All in the Alaska office.” (We don’t have one – yet.) Several times I have reminded Dan that this is not management to which we were accustomed, but we will try to adapt.

Marshall Dennehey Experience

Upon the arrival of my team over a year ago, we were welcomed and immediately integrated within the Marshall team. Some observations during our first fifteen months:

  • Orientation: The investment of several days for staff and attorneys to understand the firm’s initially complex computer software and policies involving billing and anti-harassment is well worth the time involved to establish uniformity, which is essential to best practices. Participation in one location (Philadelphia) by personnel from all offices is unique to our firm.
  • Support Staff: Always willing to assist. The benefits package available here is second to none.
  • Attorneys: The advantage of working within a culture that values coordination toward client development and maintenance over competition for originations plays out in unselfish cooperation among attorneys and practice groups.
  • Management: I am not a shareholder. I am a senior counsel, and I have been invited to attend shareholder events, such as the annual meeting. I learned that the process for compensation decisions involves multiple levels of management, thus avoiding the possibility of a small, insider group acting in purely self interest. “The proof is in the pudding,” as shareholders rarely depart, and the firm has invested in controlled growth rather than management directing profits toward their own pockets.
  • Ethics: Rather than leaving decisions regarding potential conflicts of interest to individual attorneys without any oversight, here a new case conflict check triggers management review. In addition, at least one attorney well versed in issues involving professional ethics is available for consultation.
  • Quality Client Service: As part of our firm’s culture, lawyers are encouraged to seek different perspectives and ideas through “Round Table” discussions with other firm attorneys. This contrasts with my other firms, where I often had to offer a percentage of file origination credit in order to motivate partners to participate in a file review beyond a brief hallway conversation.
  • Education: In-house, lunch hour CLEs are time efficient and informative. I recently participated as a faculty member for the firm’s mock trial program, which is offered once annually to a limited number of senior associates and junior shareholders. The quality of the presentations (openings, witness examinations, closings) by our firm’s senior trial counsel matched or exceeded the quality I have observed at national seminars, such as DRI and PBI. This year’s associate participants are all rising stars, so both the present trial bench and future trial bench at Marshall Dennehey are in very good hands.
  • Social Conscience: We should all be proud of the firm’s personnel diversity, respect for everyone regardless of position, and for having adopted a local public school for contributions and attention.
  • Negative: Still no talk of a London office, where we could partner with barristers and wear robes and wigs to court.

 

*Norman is Senior Counsel in our Philadelphia, Pennsylvania office. He can be reached at 215.575.2893 or nlhaase@mdwcg.com.

 

 

Defense Digest, Vol. 24, No. 3, September 2018. Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2018 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact tamontemuro@mdwcg.com.

 

Affiliated Attorney

Christopher E. Dougherty
Director, Professional Liability Department
(215) 575-2733
cedougherty@mdwcg.com
Norman L. Haase
Senior Counsel
(215) 575-2893
nlhaase@mdwcg.com

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