Take a look at the many ways the legal profession and those who practice it contribute to our community, and it’s easy to see how essential this industry is in our area.
WHEN YOU THINK OF INDUSTRIES AND SECTORS THAT DRIVE OUR ECONOMY, the legal profession may not be the first (or even second or third) category to enter your mind, but in Montgomery County, with 1,687 attorneys currently in practice (and the majority located in the city of Montgomery), lawyers make a formidable footprint, one that leaves a positive mark on several key aspects of many Montgomerians’ lives, as John Bradley, director of admissions at the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law explained. “We have a large number of lawyers and firms here, and that’s a good thing on several levels,” he said. “The economic impact is large, particularly when you look at jobs. The legal industry is one of the area’s major employers.”
A Time of Plenty
In many law firms, support staff outnumbers the attorneys, meaning each lawyer provides several jobs. One of the city’s largest and most known firms, Beasley Allen, has 80-plus attorneys with 225 support staff. While some of these people work in the firm’s Atlanta office, most are here.
A high number of lawyers also provides a lot of options for area consumers. “That’s great for business owners; it means they have a lot of choices in legal representation and means there is a wealth of legal knowledge and resources at businesses’ disposal here,” Bradley said. Beasley Allen’s founder Jere Beasley agreed. “The number and diversity of practice areas is a great resource,” he said. “And now, many lawyers are specializing, and that is really important; it means they know their stuff and have real expertise in a particular field.”
A vibrant legal community is a plus for the city’s image and economic development too, as Davis Smith, managing partner at Gilpin Givhan explained. His 12-attorney firm primarily practices corporate and tax law. “We see a lot of businesses and investors looking to come into Alabama. You look at downtown, and a lot of that is coming from out of state, and there are a lot of lawyers helping get those deals done,” he said. “Because our local legal infrastructure includes many sophisticated attorneys who know how to do this, we help make the area attractive to companies looking to do business here.”
Hank Hutchinson, managing partner at Cappell & Howard echoed Smith. “Capell & Howard and other firms have played a leading role in the development and growth of new and existing businesses in the River Region and have had a positive impact on the quality of life in the region,” he said. “Lawyers are often principal participants in the securing and locating of new and expanding businesses and assist and advise, together with other professionals, almost all local businesses with respect to their development and planning as well as compliance with legal requirements.”
By creating jobs themselves and assisting other businesses in doing the same, lawyers play a quantifiable role in Montgomery’s progress. But there are types of legal work that impact our lives in ways we may not realize. “I don’t think people understand the burden that lawyers bear for clients and how that alone adds to our community in a positive way,” said Suzanne Duffey of the Montgomery County Bar Association.
Sharing & Serving
Many firms believe being located in the capital city gives them plenty of benefits too. Balch & Bingham has 20 attorneys in Montgomery and has been doing business here for decades. While it now has 215 attorneys in seven offices, and its founding office opened in Birmingham 100 years ago, its second office, which currently has 22 lawyers, was opened in the capital city. “Montgomery is the hub of state government, so it makes sense for us to be here and to stay here,” said managing partner Riley Roby. The corporate law firm practices in a number of areas but devotes a lot of its attention to energy, environmental and financial services matters. “Many of our clients are regulated by state agencies and are routinely engaging with those groups, so it’s the right spot for us.”
Recognizing that they’re in the “right spot” for continued growth and success, Montgomery’s lawyers are heavily represented in the city’s philanthropic ranks. But this involvement is also a natural extension of a service mindset, according to Bradley. “You see a large level of engagement in the community and lots of giving back from our legal professionals,” he said. “It’s because the legal profession is really about service.”
While having more engaged citizens is an obvious plus for the city and its charitable and civic organizations, it helps Bradley in his work too. “It is a draw for students to our law school to see such an active, committed legal community here,” he said. Jones teaches its students the value of giving back through its three in-house legal clinics. “These allow our law students (under supervision) the opportunity to provide no-cost legal services to indigent clients.” The mediation clinic actually helps more than the clients it serves. “Our students mediate small claims cases and have a high settlement rate, so that helps our area keep court costs down,” Bradley said.
Hutchinson outlined the legal industry’s community involvements. “Montgomery area attorneys are involved in almost all civic and philanthropic organizations throughout the region,” he said. “Our firm’s attorneys have substantially participated in most of the prominent Montgomery charitable organizations in some capacity, including our being a leading contributing law firm to the River Region United Way for a number of years.”
And it’s not just time and money these lawyers donate, Smith explained. “When you have a lot of lawyers like we do, you see them all over the boards of non-profits, and they are there to provide legal expertise in addition to other things,” he said. Duffey echoed Hutchinson and Smith. “Montgomery area lawyers do so much pro bono legal work to help people who have no one else to go to bat for them,” she said. “It adds up to thousands of volunteer hours put into the County Bar Association Foundation’s Volunteer Lawyers Program. And they don’t ask for recognition; they do it because it is the right thing.”
They do it because of a call to serve, but some also do it for their home, like Smith, a Montgomery native who has high hopes for Montgomery’s future. “I’d love to see more new businesses formed here,” Smith said. “I already see an entrepreneurial spirit here, and I want to see more of it. Encouraging the creation of start-ups will bring more jobs, and those small and medium businesses create a professional and sustaining workforce that grows everything over time.”
Each year, Beasley Allen hosts a legal conference that brings thousands of attorneys to the capital city. In 2017, its eleventh event drew 1,493 lawyers, many with their spouses, to get an inside look at a recent case Beasley Allen successfully litigated. The event is the largest of its kind in the state and one of the top five legal conferences in the country. “These lawyers stayed here for at least one night and ate here too, and that’s a lot of folks, so it has a real impact,” Beasley said. Dawn Hathcock, Vice President, Destination & Brand Development for the Chamber agreed. “We have been pleased to welcome the conference here for more than a decade,” she said. “It provides lawyers from all over an opportunity to see everything Montgomery has to offer as a destination, and we hope that translates into return visits for vacations, events or additional meetings. In addition, hosting nearly 2,000 attendees provides a huge economic impact in the River Region estimated to be $1 million.”
The Thomas Goode Jones School of Law brings almost 100 students from outside of Alabama to the capital city. Out if its enrollment of 230 future lawyers, approximately 34 percent come from beyond the state’s borders. And it’s important to note its accredited status. Having an accredited law school is a positive the Chamber’s economic development team often touts in its business recruitment and expansion efforts. “It’s a major asset for our community in multiple ways,” said Ellen McNair, The Chamber's Vice President, Corporate Development.
While lawyers are sometimes stereotyped as shady and even have their own comedy category – lawyer jokes abound – they play a key part in our society. “I hate the bad name that lawyers get. They are so important to our way of life, to our democracy and justice system,” said Suzanne Duffey of The Montgomery County Bar Association. Attorney Raley L. Wiggins of Red Oak Legal expressed the same sentiment. “I tend to think that lawyers do more good than harm. While many are quick to blame lawyers as a source of what’s wrong with society, lawyers are at the forefront of ensuring that business gets done,” he said. “Both individuals and businesses need to be confident their contracts can be enforced, their debts collected and their property protected.” His firm specializes in elder law, protecting a segment of our population often at risk and in need of help navigating age-specific issues that can be complex, things like drafting wills and wading through government benefits programs like Medicaid. “Attorneys are at the front line of ensuring that the basic rules of a civil society are enforced, and that’s good for everyone,” Wiggins said.
GIVING BACK MAKES GOOD BUSINESS
Capell & Howard was named as a 2016 Alabama Small Business of the Year due to the firm’s business successes across the Southeast but also for its high level of involvement in the River Region and its committed participation in the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and other organizations.
178 = NUMBER OF LAW FIRMS IN MONTGOMERY COUNTY
1,687 = NUMBER OF ATTORNEYS IN PRACTICE IN COUNTY
Source: Montgomery County Bar Association
As the capital city of Alabama, Montgomery is a hot spot for governmental affairs. Lobbying is big business here, and while many local law firms have made these services a component of their client offerings, the opportunity to gain real “facetime” with political leadership has drawn some firms based in other cities to open offices here. It wasn’t the main reason Butler Snow, a firm based in Mississippi, opened its office here in 2011, but it has played a role. “Opening here had more to do with an opportunity to partner with a great group of lawyers that could provide tremendous value to the firm’s commercial litigation group; however, it also provided a launch pad for another key practice area, government relations,” said Ross Gunnells, Butler Snow’s Senior Government Relations Advisor. “GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS REPRESENTS THE FASTEST GROWING PORTION OF OUR TEAM’S WORK IN MONTGOMERY.” Gunnells was Governor Bentley’s Legislative Director and now, with Derek Trotter, another of the former governor’s Legislative Directors, he leads Butler Snow’s government affairs practice, helping clients navigate state government’s legislative process, procurement and regulation. “Offering these services creates value to current firm clients,” Gunnells said. “And as a capital city where legislation is created, having law makers and legal firms working side-by-side along with businesses and industry is critical.”
CHANGING TIMES- Q&A WITH COUNSEL
We asked two Montgomery attorneys, Davis Smith and Riley Roby, about the changes and trends they’ve seen in their profession in the 15-plus years they’ve both been in practice.
MBJ: How has technology affected the way you do business?
Smith: It has really helped us spread our footprint out in terms of the clients we can serve. The days of closing a transaction where everyone sits around a table for eight hours are very few and far between now. We can handle so much online, through email, and that makes everything much more efficient. And as we reach more areas, we can show businesses in other places how great Montgomery is and highlight the quality of legal services available here.
Roby: Technology has significantly and positively altered the practice of law. For one, it has moved us from a paper-intensive professional service to one that minimizes or now almost eliminates the use of paper as we can now file “paperwork” digitally and submit pleadings and other documents electronically. The internet gives us amazing access to information for research, and the communication with our clients is faster and more efficient too.
MBJ: What else has changed?
Roby: In some cases, the advances of technology have driven costs down, but in others, like guys doing very specialized work, they may now be able to charge a premium. We are seeing a move toward more specialization in the legal profession.
Smith: Recruiting has gotten easier for us. Historically, it was difficult to get young attorneys here, but now they can see our downtown development and other progress, and the internet and other tech has helped us spread that message. That has helped us bring more qualified young attorneys to Montgomery.