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Rolling with the punches: How the oldest law firms evolve and adapt

ImageWausau law firm Schmidt & Schmidt SC was in business for less than a decade when the Great Depression hit.

So founding attorney Karl Schmidt did what was necessary to preserve his practice.

“I know he took a chicken or two in exchange for legal work,” said grandson Andrew W. Schmidt.

For some small and midsize Wisconsin law firms that have been around for nearly a century or more, this kind of creativity and flexibility are often the keys to longevity.

Attorney Joseph A. Ranney, III teaches a course on legal history at Marquette University Law School and said the long-lasting firms are the ones that establish a stable of clients and adapt to change.

“I think the successful smaller firms have either forged long-term personal relationships with clients or have been able to network with others that specialize in work they don’t do,” he said.

Since its inception in 1920, Schmidt & Schmidt has focused on transactional work in areas such as estate planning, family law and probate.

Andrew Schmidt, who recently succeeded his father at the family-owned firm, said he still represents some of the same clients his grandfather did. Karl Schmidt died in 1953.

“I think we’re very community-oriented, and clients recognize that,” said Andrew Schmidt, who joined the firm in 1998.

Mixing it up

While the family name and community roots have helped sustain Schmidt & Schmidt, others in the state rely on fostering diverse practices.

At Johns, Flaherty & Collins SC, which formed in 1881, its history as a “general practice” firm has helped the firm survive, said partner Maureen L. Kinney.

Since joining the 13-attorney firm in 1975, Kinney has practiced in family law, probate, real estate and elder law.

“When we hire attorneys, we’re not pigeonholing them into a specific practice area,” she said. “Every attorney here has two or three areas they practice in.”

ImageLast year the firm hired two lawyers. One focused on business and corporate law, while the other brought experience in both family and criminal law.

This diversity of experience allows firm members to be flexible: when real estate work dipped during the latest recession, Kinney and other attorneys at the firm were able to fall back on other areas.

“I don’t think any one particular area represents 50 percent of a lawyer’s practice here,” she said. “It’s a lot more like 20 percent of this and 15 percent of that.”

But it isn’t always as simple as practice diversity.

Madison-based Axley Brynelson has 54 attorneys and offers service in more than 100 areas, but managing partner John C. Mitby said the firm is constantly on the lookout for the next new niche — and that has helped it get to the point of celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

In the mid 20th century, name partner Floyd A. Brynelson served as counsel for more than 20 independent telephone utilities, which laid the groundwork for the firm’s growing telecommunication practice.

More recently, the firm formed a Rail and Transportation team to track the progress of a proposed light rail system in the state.

The key, said Mitby, is “trying to anticipate … what clients’ needs are going to be.”

And while the Internet and technology in general allow firms to be more proactive in tracking changes in the law and provide better service to clients, the most successful firms were already doing that the old-fashioned way.

When Thomas J. Nichols joined Meissner Tierney Fisher & Nichols SC in 1979, then partner Ralph Hoyt kept a handwritten log of every change to Wisconsin statutes.

“He was 91 when I joined and he had done that for the first 40 or 50 years of practice,” Nichols said. “That kind of dedication still applies to keep attorneys here up to speed.”

The firm originated in 1848 and Nichols, a tax attorney, said one of the keys to the firm’s 162 year run is its ability to anticipate the future of the practice.

“I have to look forward and advise clients on new tax laws, but also what the rates are going to be in the next 10 years,” he said.

Don’t fear referrals

One other mark of successful firms: they’re not afraid to acknowledge they can’t handle every case, and refer work to other attorneys when necessary.

Ranney said that successful small and midsize firms have a realistic view of what they can and cannot do for clients and know when to refer work out.

Schmidt is a sole practitioner, and he often refers “aggressive” divorce cases out, largely because they can be too time consuming.

“If someone calls and wants a deed done for tomorrow, I try to balance that by choosing family law cases with lower levels of conflict,” he said.

Nichols will also ask for help to provide clients with the best level of service.

For example, he often talks with securities attorneys about trends in an effort to keep up with peripheral changes in the law.

“A client doesn’t call and have you learn on his or her nickel,” he said. “Aspects of the firm from 100 years ago still apply, in that you have to put the client first.”

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