Call it happenstance, if you will.
Three Wisconsin attorneys with highly focused practices didn’t set out as new lawyers to end up doing what they’re doing. They carved out practices in gas explosion, nursing home abuse and medical device litigation. But, once they realized the opportunities their career directions would yield, they leapt upon their niche practices with a passion. They now stand out as go-to lawyers in their fields.
John V. McCoy, McCoy & Hofbauer S.C., Waukesha
John V. McCoy vaguely recalls brief discussion about niche practices as the way to become a successful lawyer when he was a law student in the early 1980s. It meant very little to him — then. It clicked several years later.
Post-graduation, after gaining valuable trial experience as a military lawyer, he entered private practice at a national litigation firm. On his first day, he was assigned to the defense team for a lawsuit centered on a huge industrial fire in Manitowoc. In 1989, the case went to verdict — the largest in the state’s history at the time — with his client exiting the case at 2 a.m. on the morning of trial for a confidential sum.
The very satisfied client was also president of the state propane gas association. McCoy convinced the client to let him speak at an association meeting, where the attorney met the president of the national propane gas association as well. After his presentation, they approached McCoy about joining a group of attorneys concentrating in defending their industry.
“Being a young man and not stupid, I said ‘yes.’ Because it didn’t take long for me to figure out from that one case that a steady diet of them would mean a successful practice,” he says. “And, putting aside the tragedies, from a professional standpoint, they’re fun cases. They’re very complex, and you get to use all your skills as a lawyer, as well as interact with a lot of scientists, accountants and other experts.”
McCoy is a founding member and past-president of the Propane Gas Defense Association. He later began writing a column for the newsletter of state LP gas association, and then the monthly “Legal Brief” column in LP Gas Magazine, the leading national trade publication.
To date, he has handled trials and appeals for that industry in over 38 states and serves as national trial counsel for several companies. Among his recent successes is his defense of J.M. Brennan regarding a massive explosion and fire in 2006 at the Falk Foundry in Milwaukee. A jury exonerated the company from liability last September.
McCoy is first and foremost a litigator, but has also expanded his role as counselor, helping members of the industry learn from his cases how to avoid accidents, in addition to drafting safety manuals for the industry.
To any new lawyers, McCoy says it’s important to think like an entrepreneur from day one; to find out what you love; and to work to establish yourself as a leader in that field — by speaking, writing and developing networks within that clients’ industry.
“My view is: the way to be successful as a defense lawyer is not to list 18 different areas that you practice in. Rather, the idea is to become very, very good at one area, so you become known as one of the best. Then, when people have a really bad problem, they call you. …
“People say there are too many lawyers and it’s harder to make a living now. I say, there’s always room for one more, good lawyer, who’s passionate about what they do.”
Jeffrey A. Pitman, Pitman, Kyle & Sicula S.C., Milwaukee
Bad things can happen at good nursing homes. And, bad things, undoubtedly, will happen at bad nursing homes.
So says Jeffrey A. Pitman, who, in 2000, when his law firm was brand new, handled his first lawsuit against a nursing home. The case ended with an extremely favorable outcome for his client (a confidentiality agreement is in place).
Pitman, who’d been practicing in civil litigation for eight years already, was accustomed to the bread-and-butter matters most plaintiffs’ firms handle, such as auto accidents. So, the nursing home case was something new and different. It was very gratifying. And it made a nice contribution to the firm’s bottom line the year it settled. He thought about the country’s aging population, and decided that nursing home litigation would be his future.
Pitman advertised in a State Bar publication, and sent a couple of direct mail ads to other personal-injury lawyers, general practitioners and estate planners, asking for referrals. He added a page about it on his Web site. He also told anybody and everybody about his new focus. Since 2005, he has been handling nothing else.
He has also added public speaking on the topic to lawyer and civic groups as another marketing tool. He educates the latter group about how to select a safe nursing home, and how to tell if the home where a loved one is already at is providing substandard care.
It wouldn’t work if Pitman didn’t excel at what he does. He’s garnered a number of settlements in excess of $1 million.
But perhaps the most satisfying case, he says, was one involving an elderly woman who suffered a large skin tear due to the negligence of a nurse’s aid. It became infected and ultimately required skin grafts. Pitman discovered that the nurse’s aid in question had been involved in other, similar incidents at the home, and more importantly, that she’d lied on her employment application by stating she was listed on the state’s nurse’s aid registry. He’d become very attached to his client, so it was extremely rewarding to negotiate an $850,000 settlement for her. The nurse’s aid was ultimately fired, he notes.
Pitman has yet to try a nursing home negligence case, after nine years, but he will relish that opportunity when it arises.
Mostly, his job requires extensive medical record review. He has learned the “language” of those records, but concedes he’s not nearly as accomplished in that regard as the two associates he has hired recently with nursing backgrounds. They were hired primarily for that expertise, to help him with the firm’s burgeoning nursing-home practice.
“I feel like a medical detective, putting together the pieces of a puzzle to figure out how an elderly patient was injured at the hands of caregivers,” Pitman says. “I really like the intellectual challenge, as well as knowing that I’ve helped a member of an extremely vulnerable population.”
He continues, “I don’t think pursuing a niche practice right away is a good strategy.
Don’t come right out of the gate saying, ‘I only want to do nursing home litigation.’ Get your training first. Try several areas of the law and see what you like and what you’re good at. Then you can start trying to find a way to differentiate yourself from the pack.”
Allen C. Schlinsog Jr., Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren S.C., Milwaukee
The turning point in Allen C. Schlinsog Jr.’s career c
ame in the mid-1990s, when he and attorney Ralph Weber were hired by SmartHealth Inc. to represent the Phoenix-based business in litigation in Wisconsin regarding health-care workers alleging they’d developed allergies as a result of wearing SmartHealth’s latex gloves.
SmartHealth wasn’t just satisfied with the results they achieved. The company proceeded to hire Schlinsog and Weber to lead its latex-glove litigation in dozens of similar lawsuits across the country.
It was then that Schlinsog realized he could make “drug and device” work the mainstay of his practice, when he was just five years out of law school.
“It started out as a happy accident, but then I fostered it,” Schlinsog says.
“I knew I liked the work. It’s challenging; it’s always something new and different; it’s scientific and technical. And there are always issues that you don’t see in the standard products liability case, such as causation. That’s the most interesting part for me: You don’t always really know. Sometimes the science just doesn’t prove out a plaintiff’s claim. Still, the plaintiff says, and I’m sometimes persuaded by, if not my theory, what?
What caused this? Maybe the science just hasn’t caught up yet. It’s really fascinating work.”
Schlinsog began seeking out and getting referrals from satisfied clients like SmartHealth, which remains a client today. He additionally joined the Defense Research Institute’s Drug and Medical Device Section, asking for referrals from other attorneys.
Initially some clients were hesitant to hire “national counsel,” believing it might be more cost-effective to have separate, local attorneys for each and every case. The opposite is true, says Schlinsog, explaining that there’s more uniformity in strategy and less re-creating the wheel. Also, the client doesn’t have to pay for the lawyer’s learning curve regarding its products and business. And, Milwaukee firm rates are probably much better than most big-city firms of the same caliber.
“The most appealing thing about our practice is the trust factor. We’ve built close relationships with our clients,” says Schlinsog. “I think I’m more invested in an outcome, knowing my clients and their products as well as I do, and knowing that not only am I planning upon seeing them again, but also, that I plan to be their attorney well into the future.”
His practice has expanded into the role of advisor as well as litigator, counseling clients on how to prevent accidents and legal issues, and how to work with the Food and Drug Administration, for example.
Schlinsog says he is lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, and getting into a niche practice when specialization within law firms was just starting as a trend about a decade ago.
He believes it will continue. It’s important to him when he’s looking at hiring local counsel, and he can only assume that it matters a great deal to non-lawyers hiring lawyers as well. As a reflection of this trend, Schlinsog notes that at his firm, they’ve split the litigation team into subspecialties.