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Bar News - September 7, 2007

Law Firm Management


Orr and Reno Professional Association: In-House Shared Management

The practice of law in New Hampshire is worlds away from what it was when Attorney John Malmberg, a partner at Orr and Reno Professional Association in Concord, arrived at the firm in 1979.


Malmberg graduated from Cornell Law School in 1978 and after clerking for a federal judge in Burlington, Vermont, went to work at Orr and Reno–a general practice firm founded in 1946 by Dudley Orr and Bob Reno. Malmberg left the firm for several years, but then returned in 1994. He specializes in all aspects of representing health care providers.


In a recent interview for Bar News, Malmberg spoke about Orr & Reno’s management style.  The firm has grown considerably over the past 30 years and tied to the firm’s growth has come the need to reorganize the management structure. The operations of the firm are directed by a three-member management committee, which meets every two weeks. “We rely pretty heavily on our office administrator to run the day-to-day operations,” Malmberg said.


There are 17 partners in the firm and all are on the board of directors, which meets quarterly. The partners go on retreat for two days each year to take a global look at the firm.


The management committee carries more weight than it once did, Malmberg explained, as the firm used to have many more committees. “Everybody spent way too much time in meetings that were of marginal utility,” he went on. “I think we decided that we needed to vest more responsibility in a smaller group of people. The expectation is that every partner will at one point spend some time on the management committee.”


Growth Brings Big Changes


Orr and Reno has 29 attorneys and is considered a general practice firm with attorneys who concentrate on general corporate work for small businesses, commercial litigation, employment law, immigration law, medical malpractice defense, estate planning, divorce and an area dubbed “health, insurance and regulated industries.”


When Malmberg started, there were 12 attorneys on staff who were considered general practice lawyers. Since then, the firm has seen a trend toward specialization. “The small business group and the regulated industries group are the biggest growth areas. Both those groups are very busy and getting busier,” he said. Malmberg chalks this up to the robust New Hampshire economy. “The regulated industries group addresses the needs of that robust economy,” he said. Malmberg expects the firm to continue to grow at the rate of two attorneys a year for the next four to five years.


Malmberg said things are more competitive today in all areas of the law; it’s more technological, more specialized and moving at a much faster pace then when he started his career almost 30 years ago. Perhaps the most disquieting of these trends, though, is the competitiveness, he believes.


“It has made the profession less satisfying and I think that’s unfortunate,” Malmberg said, “The camaraderie and the professionalism in the bar has deteriorated a little bit because of the competition for business. We are still a relatively small bar, but we know each other less well. People are looking for business and talking to clients of other lawyers and competing with people pretty hard.”


Out-of-State Firms Spur Competition


Much of that competition among local firms is due to an increase in pressure from out-of- state firms from Boston or Portland that have opened offices in New Hampshire. Malmberg said Orr and Reno has felt the pinch from those out-of-state firms. While the big city firms first started “nosing around” about 10 years ago, they have been a strong presence in state for about the past seven years. “Both Boston and Portland law firms have established offices in New Hampshire and have come looking pretty aggressively for business. And obviously when you come from those places, you’re not looking for run-of-the-mill business, you’re looking for the best business. And that means the competition is even greater,” Malmberg said.


Often, it seems that publicly traded companies with a lot at stake opt for a higher priced out- of-state attorney because it feels like an insurance policy, and looks better to investors. He said Orr and Reno has had to market itself to retain clients who might be lured away by the out-of- state firms


“We think we offer a great bargain. We think our quality, our expertise, and our sophistication is as high as anybody in Boston or Portland. But because we’re in New Hampshire and we’re paying New Hampshire compensation and rent, we can offer the services as a far more favorable price,” he said.


Attracting New Lawyers


The firm also has to market itself to new lawyers, who may be attracted to big city firms with higher starting salaries because they have huge student loans to pay off. Although he grew up in Delaware, Malmberg decided to practice in New Hampshire because of its quality of life. The firm counts on that same quality of life factor when recruiting new lawyers today. They hire an average of two new lawyers every year and Malmberg said the firm gets many resumes each year.  


“The salary scale we offer in New Hampshire for people coming out of law school is not even half of what they can earn in New York and Washington. So if you have a big debt obligation, it’s hard to come here,” he said. “It’s clearly a quality of life issue. This firm is composed of 30 lawyers, all of whom could have gone to the big city and made more money and worked harder and been in the big firms. All of us made a conscious decision to come to a New Hampshire firm because of the lifestyle. The firm is full of individuals who care about the quality of their lives and who also care about public service and the community in which we live.”


The firm offers a four- month paid sabbatical to partners who have been there for at least 10 years.  It also offers 12 weeks of paternity or maternity leave. An attorney has the option to work an 80 percent schedule after returning from that leave until the time his/her child enters first grade.


Each new lawyer is assigned a mentor when he or she starts work, someone  “who is responsible for making sure the lawyer is aware of what’s going on and has a place to ask questions,” Malmberg said. Each attorney has a mentor until making partner.  In addition, the firm has an Associates’ Committee, which meets every six weeks, and offers associates a forum to discuss issues or concerns. “I think we are very open with the information about the firm,” Malmberg said. “We share financial information with the associates.  I think in general, the lawyers here think of associates as future partners and want them to be comfortable. They want them to feel part of it right from the start.”


Community Involvement a Core Value


A core value of the firm is community involvement and attorneys are encouraged to become active in the local community through boards, committees and volunteering. Attorneys at the firm work an average of 1,700 hours per year, which is considerably less than attorneys in cities, he said. “The consequence of that is we make less money,” he said. “The firm historically didn’t have a number [of hours as an annual requirement]. It was just a matter of getting your work done and meeting your client’s needs. We set a number for budget purposes.”


The dedication to giving back to the community is also seen in the firm’s philosophy regarding pro bono work. “We expect everybody to do something,” Malmberg said, adding about one-third of the firm is involved in regular pro bono work. “It’s part of our commitment to the community. We regard it as an important function of the lawyers to maintain access to the justice system for all.”  Attorneys at Orr and Reno receive billable hour credit of up to 100 hours a year for pro bono work.


Personal Relationships and the Electronic Era


When Malmberg began practicing law, he said there was more of an emphasis on the value of personal relationships. “It’s no longer possible to rely on relationships. You need to be competitive in a lot of different ways,” he said. “People can lose clients they’ve had long standing relationships with at the drop of a hat for reasons they have absolutely no control over. And it happens all the time.” What this means, he said, is that lawyers have had to become much more adept at things aside from just knowing the law.  “It means that everybody needs to be efficient and technology certainly has done that. But it also has imposed a higher level of stress on lawyers because things have to happen faster,” he said.


The only piece of equipment in the office when Malmberg started was a copy machine. Lawyers had their own secretaries to keep up with the workload. With the use of computers, and word processors, things have changed dramatically. “We can do better drafts for people because we can edit so easily,” he said. “But because of the leaps in communication, we also have to be faster and don’t have time to reflect. It’s a much faster occupation now than it was when I first started.”


For example, when Malmberg was working on a case, he used to send a letter to the other party involved, which usually took three days to arrive. Then the other person would wait a few days to respond via phone. E-mail and technology has changed that legal process. “You send an e-mail and there’s an instantaneous response,” he said. He recalls one Manchester attorney who resisted the speed of the law when fax machines became common by putting faxes on his desk for three days before reading them.


Orr and Reno has adapted to the changes of the past quarter of a century. The firm prides itself on its reputation, team-work environment, and its location and involvement in the community.   


“We value the Concord community and the state of New Hampshire,” Malmberg said, adding that the firm’s downtown Concord location is ideal and attorneys often go to the nearby YMCA during lunch to exercise. “I like the idea of walking down Main Street at lunch time and seeing a lot of people I know. Having an office downtown adds to the quality of life in New Hampshire.”


Lara Bricker is a freelance writer. She is a former staff writer and continues as a columnist for the Portsmouth Herald. She also worked as an investigator for the NH Public Defender. This is her first article for Bar News.


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