Bar News - June 8, 2007
Law Firm Management Managing Partner Perspectives: Wiggin & Nourie
By: Ann K. Crane
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.
Attorney L. Jonathan Ross, president and member of the Wiggin & Nourie law firm, with offices in
Manchester and Portsmouth, 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. The law firm was established in 1870 (under the name of Cross & Burnham) and today serves clients throughout New Hampshire and in several New England states.
L. Jonathan Ross
Ross, who specializes in the area of family law, earned his B.A. at Hobart College, his J.D. at Georgetown University, and his LL.M. at Harvard University. He joined Wiggin & Nourie in 1968 and was elected president of the firm in December 2006.
The following interview with Ross was conducted in the firm’s Manchester office, a former mill building with polished wooden floors, oriental rugs, and views of the Merrimack River. Ross spoke first about the firm’s areas of specialization and about the strategies and innovations that it is developing to address today’s challenges in the legal profession.
Practice Area Specializations
We currently have four practice areas: domestic relations, litigation, insurance, and business work. Within those areas, we have several practice groups—employment, auto franchising, real estate, and land use and development. We have another practice group that’s being formed now, which will concentrate on personal injury matters from the plaintiff’s side.
I expect that our present practice emphasis will continue for now, but that could change in the future. The declining divorce rate was recently in the news, and when and if that affects NH, our plans may change. When I first came here, I was the eleventh lawyer in the firm, and three of those attorneys were semi-retired. We did a lot of insurance defense work back then. There were not many lawyers here that wanted to do divorce litigation, and in 1988, I made a decision to concentrate in that area. Over time, we attracted more people to do that work, and today we are the largest concentration in the state for domestic relations. Since then, a number of other firms have developed domestic relations practices, but we are the biggest. This work takes up 50 percent of the civil court docket, so there’s plenty of work to be done.
Plans for Expansion
Four years ago, under the leadership of Greg Holmes, we made a decision that we would grow, with a goal of basically doubling our space. Our offices were in a building in Central Manchester. We sold that building, and moved to this building a couple of years ago. We also added an office in Portsmouth a year and a half ago. We had some extended discussions with Tom Watson and his partner Jennifer Lemire, who had a law office in Portsmouth, and we ended up merging the firms. We now have offices for seven lawyers in Portsmouth; some of us spend a lot of time there, and a few of us rotate in and out.
Our plan is to continue to grow the firm at least into the low 60s [currently, there are 47 attorneys], to provide depth and practice expertise to serve our clients. We’re doing our strategic planning right now for the next five years, so we don’t have the answers yet, but we’re working on them.
The Firm’s Profile
Ross discusses the firm in respect to expansion plans beyond a New Hampshire scope.
We’re not a national firm. What we may become in terms of our clients and our future is part of our strategic planning process. Today, we practice primarily in New Hampshire, although some of our lawyers practice regionally, and some nationally.
While we don’t have any current plans to expand out-of-state, we are affiliated with Meritas, which gives us access to legal services and expertise throughout the country and the world to meet our clients’ needs.
Whether or not we’d be interested in the trend toward mergers, is a little bit like being asked about dancing when you’re not at the dance yet.
Internal Management Structure
Ross describes the firm’s management structure and its recruiting and hiring practices.
A number of years ago we decided to streamline the decision-making process and adopted our present management structure. Currently, the Board meets monthly and the day-to-day, non-legal decisions are managed by our chief operating officer. As president of the firm, I handle the legal management. There are chairs of each practice group, and they meet with us on a regular basis, but we got rid of all of the committees that we used to have [because they] took up too much time. The president serves a year at a time; Greg Holmes served for six years, but I don’t expect to serve for that long. If I served for six years, I’d be 71. I’ll give someone else a chance instead.
We have a Hiring Committee, whose principle job is to interview and make recommendations for hiring recent law school graduates. We have a separate group that considers lateral hires. We generally hire between two and three new lawyers each year, primarily new grads or people who have finished clerkships. We do most of our hiring through a job fair, although we’ll make exceptions for people who are recommended by [distinguished legal professionals].
We want people who have some connection with New Hampshire—you are making a big investment in new people, and you don’t want to lose them. We will get roughly 300 resumes or more at the job fair, which gives us a lot of people to choose from.
Mentoring of New Attorneys
New lawyers get responsibility much sooner here than they would at a metropolitan-area law firm. Our new attorneys have client contact and go to court very early on. We train them through an in-house mentoring system, where a senior attorney is responsible for one-on-one training of a new hire. One aspect of this is that young lawyers collect their papers weekly for their mentors to read them and correct; like school papers, mentors check them for substance, form, and grammar. We also have monthly sessions on procedures and on issues such as risk management that we want them to know. These training sessions go on for about five years or so.
Pro Bono Work Is Everyone’s Job
Our firm has a long-standing and deeply abiding commitment to pro bono work. I would say that the biggest barriers to getting pro bono work done today are the cost and the depth of the problem. There’s a tremendous need, particularly on the civil side.
Last summer at the American Bar Association annual meeting, there was a call for a civil Gideon resolution saying that in matters of extreme importance, such as losing a house or a child, people ought to have a lawyer, and if they can’t afford it, it ought to be free. How you get there, and where the funding comes from, is a huge problem. In New Hampshire, both the Citizens Commission and the Commission on the Status of the Legal Profession have recommended that there be a civil Gideon statute, and the legislature has been responsive.
As an individual, I have been very active in this area for a long time, at both the national and the state levels. This is really important to me and to other members of the firm. Stephanie Bray, who works here, is president of NH Legal Assistance. Also, our firm participates in pro bono work in the following way: the NHBA Pro Bono Referral Program sends us two new referral cases every month, regardless of how many we already have in the pipeline. We try to take cases that our business lawyers can do, as well as taking domestic relations cases, so that all of the workload doesn’t fall on a few individuals. We have pretty close to firm-wide participation. We also have an appellate effort for pro bono work on civil cases that we’re participating in. I’m hoping that the Court will pass mandatory reporting of pro bono work. There’s no penalty for not doing it, but peer pressure is a wonderful way of getting things done.
We also encourage people at our firm to be active and to give something back to their community. We don’t have a formal program or structure for that; it’s just part of what’s expected here.
Technology and Marketing Trends
Our office is networked and integrated, so we have connectivity in our offices, our homes, and on the road. We encourage attorneys and staff to use our paperless files technology, but it is not mandatory. We’re going to experiment with voice recognition software this year, where I will be able to dictate something and it will arrive at my secretary’s computer all typed up. But, I don’t think we’ll ever be entirely paperless, because when you go to trial it will always be important to have a document in your hand. We use our Web site for clients and for recruiting.
For marketing, we have a director of marketing, and our lawyers are trained in how to make an “ask” for business. We make sure that they attend functions that are important to our business, and use our facilities to host other groups. We do some print advertising, and we sometimes buy space in event programs, but that’s often more as a charitable contribution than for marketing.
We are concerned that the firm’s lawyers be aware of the importance of a balanced life and try to provide flexibility in the workplace. For a long time, we have had a part-time policy for lawyers who work at our firm. We try to make it possible for lawyers to work from home by providing systems that can be accessed remotely. We also hire contract attorneys as needed.
The New Hampshire Advantage
I’ve always said that the legal issues that I’ve been confronted with during the course of my career here are as interesting and as difficult as those of my friends in large firms—but here, there are just a few less zeroes. In New Hampshire, you get to work with a congenial bar, a very competent bench, and good lawyers—very, very good lawyers.
Former Boston Globe reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Ann K. Crane is a freelance writer based in Meredith.
Wiggin & Nourie
Offices: Manchester, Portsmouth
Staff: 102, including all non-attorney personnel in both offices.
Practice Structure: Attorneys are loosely organized into four main practice areas; within those areas, there are practice groups.
Top Practice Areas: Domestic Relations, Litigation, Insurance.
Key Emerging Practice Areas: Real Estate, Land Use and Development, Trusts and Estate Planning.