Managing Partner Perspectives: Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green
The following is part of a series of interviews with the managing partners of New Hampshire law firms on trends in the legal profession and how law firms are responding.
Joseph A. DiBrigida, Jr., the attorney who heads up Manchester-based Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, recently talked to the NH Bar News about what he sees as the major trends in the legal profession and how he expects them to impact the state’s law firms. DiBrigida’s firm, Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, is a full-service regional law firm with offices in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
As president and managing partner of the firm, which he joined in 1988, DiBrigida talks about the strategies and innovations that Sheehan Phinney is developing to address today’s challenges in the legal profession.
Today’s Legal Competition
You have fewer and fewer large, New Hampshire-based companies; instead you have offices that tend to be owned by corporations from outside this region. As a result, the personal connections which companies used to have with their attorneys no longer exist. Today, clients shop for a specialty, rather than hire a law firm to take care of the full range of their legal needs. For example, they’ll go out and try to hire the best IP [intellectual property] lawyer if that’s their issue, or if they need to defend an employee discrimination suit, they’ll go out and find the best expert they can find in that area. So, in order to get new business, there’s a lot of competition among law firms to have that recognized expert on staff.
Practice Area Specializations
In the last five years we’ve had much more focus in the area of intellectual property. We’ve developed a strong trademark business that’s growing by leaps and bounds. We’re in the process of trying to hire another patent lawyer because we’ve got so much business that our existing resources just can’t cover it. For instance, we’ve got a patent attorney who does a great deal of teaching and goes out to the [industry] trade shows, and, as a result, we have patent clients coming from far and wide, including internationally.
We’ve done similar things with our bankruptcy department. We’ve got a nationally recognized bankruptcy expert, and our firm gives him the freedom to market his expertise nationally in an effort to broaden the net for new business. New Hampshire bankruptcies are way down, so these lawyers have to go outside the state to get new business.
Two other strong areas of growth for our firm are our employment and labor practice group, which is primarily state-based, and our corporate and securities practice.
Internal Management Structure
Managing partners are elected to the position. A nominating committee conducts interviews with partners, and at the end of that process the last time, I was the one nominee for the position, making the election pretty much a formality. It’s a three-year term, and most managing partners serve two terms, but there is no term limit. We’ve always had a managing partner and a management committee, but the earlier managing partners tended to serve for longer, sometimes as long as 20 years.
Creating a National Profile
Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green is the exclusive New Hampshire member of Lex Mundi, an association of independent law firms throughout the country and the world. This association gives us a truly global reach and access to top-quality expertise anywhere we need it to serve our clients. We were a founding member of Lex Mundi in the early ’90s, and we see our affiliation with this network as essential. We can answer questions that clients may have under the law of other jurisdictions in an almost instantaneous way, and we can also make referrals to a law firm in Mexico, for example, with complete confidence in their expertise.
Plans for Expansion
We opened up offices in Boston and in Lebanon about five years ago, and it has been working out well. We started slowly with three attorneys in Boston and have grown to eight there now. We started with one in Lebanon and we’re still at one. For us, regional is where we’ll probably be in the next few years. I don’t see us opening a New York or Washington [DC] office.
Innovations in Practice Management
For a long time, we had a non-lawyer executive director. About seven or eight years ago, we stopped using that structure and now the human services director and the CFO report directly to me. The benefit is that it gives the attorneys in the firm a more direct channel to me; and they know that because I’m a lawyer, too, I’ll understand their concerns. When our long-term executive director retired, we tried two replacements but it didn’t work out, so we decided to have the managing partner do more managing. Another innovation is a significant profit-sharing program we have for all our employees. Ten percent in addition to your salary is contributed into this profit-sharing fund, which is professionally managed, and it’s done very well since its inception.
Our main focus in recruiting new attorneys is to find people with prior New Hampshire connections. Ultimately, they’re more likely to thrive here and stay here. We rely primarily on job fairs, although we also do some campus visits. We go as far away as Oregon to find second-year law students, and we rely on campus career offices, the Internet, and our network to find them. Although I was from New Jersey, I spent some summers up here, went to hockey camp in Exeter, and then to Dartmouth, and knew I wanted to stay here.
Diversity has been difficult to achieve because New Hampshire has such a homogenized population. I’ve always felt that the firm should reflect the clients that it serves. That homogeneity is changing now, and so is our diversity, particularly in our Boston office. We’ll be making more attempts to add to that effort. The larger, more metropolitan firms are having an easier time adding diversity to their hires.
Mentoring New Attorneys
It’s been said that law schools do a great job of teaching somebody how to be a law student, but they don’t do a great job of teaching someone how to practice law, so that training has to take place here. Recognizing that law has become increasingly specialized, we assign new lawyers to a department and to a mentor when we hire them. Unlike some places, we don’t have a rotation that everyone has to complete by their second year. That ended in 1988. The way we train them now is by giving our newest associates direct client contact.
Pro Bono Work
Lately, the term pro bono has taken on a different connotation. I think that’s driven by the fact that the Pro Bono Referral System has been overwhelmed by the number of cases. Chief Justice [John] Broderick came here recently and said that two-thirds of the litigants in New Hampshire are pro se (representing themselves), which has really bogged down the process. The dilemma that we find ourselves in is that we largely don’t practice law in the areas of the cases that make up most of the referrals. The way we’re addressing it is through our lawyers’ commitment to community service. By serving charities and sitting on boards, invariably—if you’re a lawyer—you end up giving away a lot of free legal advice. So, we tend to look deficient in our rate of acceptance of pro bono referrals, but if we count up the number of hours we put in sitting on boards and advising not-for-profits, we provide what we should be providing. We will probably also explore ways to take more referrals that fit with the way we practice law, which is primarily litigation-oriented. Two-thirds of our lawyers are corporate practitioners.
Also, about a year ago, the Lex Mundi organization established a foundation to provide pro bono services to social entrepreneurs, and we were recently able to connect with a social entrepreneur, based in Hanover, who is teaching kids in Africa about the dangers of AIDS. We were able to help him with structuring his efforts. I see us doing more of that kind of work in order to round out our pro bono contributions, and working on areas such as micro-credit lending.
We have an active involvement with United Way, and as a firm, we tend to support organizations that our employees are involved with. We have quite a few employees involved in a mentoring program, Big Brothers and Sisters, Salvation Army, Walk for Life, and so we try to support things like that.
The most important thing is to have all of our offices connected on the same system, by computer or by phone, whether you’re in Boston or Concord or Manchester or Lebanon. We also have everyone linked at home, so they can have more flexibility and balance. We try to give people as much autonomy as we can, within the confines of running a law firm. We support and encourage the use of smart phones, a telephone which gives you your Outlook, contacts, e-mail capability, and the basic operating system of our own computer system—Word, Excel, Powerpoint, all that.
Law has become more demanding, and I think lawyers are more prone to burning out now than before. We’ve been fortunate here because it’s understood that lawyers are expected to spend time with their families. It’s not uncommon to walk around here at at night and not find any lawyers here, because they’re all home having dinner with their families. Now, they may be back here later, or work at home; but we really want them to have that balance because in the long run they’ll be better people and better lawyers for it.
I think the law has become more of a business from the late ’80s on. There’s much more emphasis on competing, bringing in new clients. I think a lot of that was inevitable. People are driven to do well and keep their clients happy; they’re also driven from within to have a good, balanced life. Those are the people we try to hire and the ones that will fit in here.
It’s the ability to have a sophisticated legal practice while still enjoying the benefits that NH has to offer—the natural quality of life, the commitment to family, and something that really can’t be overestimated: the ability to practice in a bar that’s still relatively small and collegial.
Former Boston Globe reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Ann K. Crane is a freelance writer based in Meredith.