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Big firms expand into Waukesha

Bliss

“What I learned was that Waukesha has a really vital, distinct business community, which is very entrepreneurial and growing quickly, with expanding legal needs, and they are looking for more sophisticated legal help than was traditionally needed out there. I also learned that, in general, going to downtown Milwaukee to get it, in their view, is perceived as a bit of a hassle.”

Richard J. Bliss,
Godfrey & Kahn

“Go west” might be the new anthem for Wisconsin’s largest law firms, as yet another of the state’s big firms expanded its presence in Waukesha County just two weeks ago.

Milwaukee’s Davis & Kuelthau S.C., which already had an office in Elm Grove with one attorney and a Brookfield office with four lawyers, announced on Oct. 15 that it will merge with Niebler & Mueren S.C., an established Brookfield firm of nine lawyers.

Five of Wisconsin’s eight largest firms, which are all Milwaukee-based, now have Waukesha branches. They are Michael, Best & Friedrich LLP, Reinhart Boerner Van Dueren s.c., Godfrey & Kahn S.C., Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C, and Davis & Kuelthau. Of them, the second largest firm in Wisconsin, Michael Best & Friedrich, boasts being the largest full-service law firm in Waukesha County, with 20 of its 240-plus lawyers practicing in Waukesha.

Medium-sized firms are also getting in on the action. Two Milwau-kee-based firms, Previant, Goldberg, Uelmen, Gratz, Miller & Bruegge-man S.C., and Weiss Berzowski Brady LLP, already have offices in Waukesha County. And Madison-based Habush, Habush & Rottier S.C. is there, while DeWitt, Ross & Stevens S.C. has a Waukesha County office in the works.

The result is that Waukesha County now has the third highest concentration of lawyers in the state, according to Julie Chrisler at the State Bar of Wisconsin.

What the County has to Offer

There’s plenty of legal work to be done in Waukesha County.

For those courting business clients, according to the Waukesha Area Chamber of Commerce, the county is home to nearly 70 business/industrial parks — something they attribute to the county’s convenient location between two major interstates, I-94 and I-43. In New Berlin alone, the city’s five business/industrial parks house more than 1,000 businesses, employing 22,000 persons. Other hot locations within the county for business are Menomonee Falls, Pewaukee, Sussex, Brookfield and Waukesha.

Further, it seems most everyone in Waukesha County is working. A mere 2.8 percent of the county’s residents are unemployed. Most people work in manufacturing, followed by education, health and social services; retail; professional, scientific, management, administrative and waste management; and finance, insurance and real estate.

But if law firms are also seeking the more traditional clientele of “mom and pop” legal matters, such as divorces, wills and real estate work, they’re likely to find that, too, in light of Waukesha County’s recent population growth.

Specifically, U.S. Census Bureau figures show that the population in Waukesha County increased more that 20 percent between 1990 and 2000, going from 304,715 to 360,767 residents.

More recently, the State of Wisconsin Department of Administration reported on Aug. 11 that since the 2000 census, Waukesha County has grown by 10,422 residents, and that Waukesha was among the five municipalities with the most rapid growth, increasing by 1,982 persons.

In addition to ample legal work to be done, the area presents plentiful opportunities for local bar involvement, says the president of the Waukesha County Bar Association, Paul G. Bonneson.

Bonneson, a Waukesha native and a solo practitioner who has been practicing in the area for the past 16 years, explains that the Waukesha County Bar has four practice-specific sections for lawyers, as well as free continuing legal education programs. The bar is also striving to add more social programs — so as the area grows and lawyers become more specialized, they will not lose collegiality.

Newcomers to the legal community will like what they encounter, he adds. “The courts here are run well and the judges do a good job. There’s also strong economic growth in Waukesha, and the
probability of attaining a decent client base. And then there’s the usual things, like nice places to shop, a good infrastructure and good schools.”

Local Offices, Local Counsel

The key to success in Waukesha County for firms opening branch offices there is to dispel any perception of being an outsider, according to several law firm managers.

Weiss Berzowski, Davis & Kuelthau and Godfrey & Kahn all employed similar strategies when making the move into Waukesha.

First, they targeted Waukesha as an area that’s ripe for expansion, given the county’s strong economy, as part of their strategic planning.

Next, they did a lengthy, informal investigation of sorts – polling existing Waukesha-based clients to see if there were unmet legal needs that their firms could fill. They also talked to business leaders, other lawyers and government officials.

“We discovered that Waukesha appears to be the fastest-growing county, from a business perspective, in southeastern Wisconsin,” says Mark Vetter, the president of Davis & Kuelthau. “Ozaukee County is also experiencing rapid growth, but most of that is residential.

“When you talk to real estate people, or when you just make the drive yourself, you see that the I-94 corridor, from Brookfield all the way to Delafield and Hartland, is booming with new businesses and business parks. The next step is Oconomowoc and Pabst Farms, and then out to Johnson Creek,” he continues.

For his part, the managing partner of Godfrey & Kahn, Richard J. Bliss, says, “What I learned was that Waukesha has a really vital, distinct business community, which is very entrepreneurial and growing quickly, with expanding legal needs, and they are looking for more sophisticated legal help than was traditionally needed out there. I also learned that, in general, going to downtown Milwaukee to get it, in their view, is perceived as a bit of a hassle.”

They then looked for partners within their Milwaukee office who live in Waukesha County and would be interested in relocating their practices there as well. They also looked for Waukesha County practitioners with well-established practices and other ties within the community to come aboard.

In Weiss Berzowski’s case, they wooed Delafield attorney Dean Richards away from his small firm to head a branch office in Delafield in 1999.

Richards

“This work has always been here. Many firms were doing it in Milwaukee, and several of us were doing it out here, and other people were doing it elsewhere. What has changed is that now clients and businesses based here have local counsel to do their work, and don’t have to drive to downtown Milwaukee for legal services, as they used to.”

Dean Richards,
Weiss Berzowski Brady LLP

As for Davis & Kuelthau, they successfully recruited Elm Grove attorney Gerald J. Flood in January of 2001 and Brookfield lawyer Robert W. Roth in October of 2002, prior to negotiating the merger with Niebler & Mueren.

Godfrey and Kahn, which opened a Waukesha office in 2000, acquired five key partners from a nearby competitor, Bode, Carroll, McCoy & Hoefle S.C., in October of last year.

“It would be a mistake to just send lawyers out there – it’s not an ‘If we build it, they will come’ situation. The community prefers Waukesha people, not downtown Milwaukee people,” says Bliss.

Vetter echoes those sentiments, explaining that he grew up in Waukesha County and still resides there. “Generally speaking, the businesses in Waukesha County have not been attracted to the Milwaukee firms. It’s almost like there’s a dividing line at 124th Street. Businesses in Waukesha traditionally haven’t been interested in ‘high-priced, silk stocking Milwaukee lawyers.’”

“If you’re going to have a local office, it’s not the presence of the office; it’s the nature of the attorneys,” says Richards. “Weiss Berzowski and other firms have taken the position that our lawyers are a part of the community — that we’ve always been here.” Incidentally, Richards serves as the chief of Delafield’s volunteer fire department.

The firms have experienced phenomenal growth in their Waukesha offices.
Weiss Berzowski had four lawyers staffing its Delafield office in 1999; now there are seven. When Godfrey & Kahn opened its doors in 2000, they had two full-time and six to eight part-time lawyers in the office; now they have 15 full-time and six to eight part-timers there. And with Davis &

Kuelthau’s latest acquisition, they have gone from one attorney in the county in 2001, to 14 by the year’s end.

“I take the cynic’s approach, that I’m sorry that everybody else is learning the secret that this is great place to live and work,” concludes Richards, who has been living and practicing in Delafield since 1990.

“I think there is a tremendous misconception that there is suddenly legal work to do in Waukesha County, and firms are moving out to do that. This work has always been here. Many firms were doing it in Milwaukee, and several of us were doing it out here, and other people were doing it elsewhere. What has changed is that now clients and businesses based here have local counsel to do their work, and don’t have to drive to downtown Milwaukee for legal services, as they used to.”

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