Few professions are as central to the economy — and as unpopular with the general public — as the legal profession. Lawyers write contracts, negotiate real estate sales, help businesses grow, defend criminals, file divorce petitions, protect inventors’ patents.
And they’ve been doing it since ancient times. But as Clark County emerges from its long, deep recession, local lawyers say their industry is changing.
Nationally, the outlook for law firms is for an average 5 percent increase in profitiability, the Wall Street Journal reported recently, citing the latest client advisory by Citi Private Bank and Hildebrandt Consulting LLC, drawn from a database of 205 U.S.-headquartered firms. Lawsuits are down, the report said, but other work for businesses is climbing —though clients are increasingly focused on managing their legal costs.
Locally, firms are reporting similar gains. Revenue is up 68 percent in three years at Vancouver-based Horenstein Law Group. Real estate transactions are climbing at the Clark County office of Portland-based Schwabe Wiliamson and Wyatt. Vancouver-based Greenen and Greenen reports more demand for its business services.
Nearly 800 lawyers are licensed to practice in Clark County, although some may work here only occassionally. The Clark County bar has 455 members, but lawyers are not required to register with the county bar.
As the industry adapts to national changes coming out of the recession, local law offices are adjusting to changes in demand and in client expectations.
Here’s a look at four shifts that are reshaping the business of law in Southwest Washington — and beyond.
1. New ways to pay.
Since practicing law first became a profession more than 2,000 years ago, clients have been complaining about their lawyers’ fees. Ancient Romans wanted to cap what advocates charged. Shakespeare joked that fees could rise forever.
Part of the problem, Vancouver attorney Steve Horenstein believes, is that it’s hard for clients to know how much a transaction, lawsuit or other legal need will cost.
Most U.S. lawyers charge by the hour — leaving clients wondering how many hours they’ll be billed for, he says. “They want to know what it costs.”
When he left a larger firm three years ago to start Horenstein Law Group, which works primarily with business clients, one of his goals was to make pricing more transparent.
That strategy has paid off.
“Coming out of the recession, the kind of clients we have are much more savvy about their own budgets, and that makes them much more savvy about their legal spending,” Horenstein says. “Our willingness to work with budgets and flat fees — things that bring predictability to the cost of legal services — has been attractive to clients.”
2. Small is big.
Massive 2,000-lawyer international firms were historically the first stop for large corporations seeking outside legal help, but since the most recent recession, that’s beginning to change, says Don Russo, a Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt shareholder who is based in his firm’s Vancouver office.
“More and more, large corporations are going to regional firms — which is how we view ourselves,” Russo says of his Portland-headquartered company, which has fewer than 200 lawyers, including eight in Clark County.
“While not cheap by any measure, our rates are more competitive,” Russo says.
There seems to be a trickle-down effect, with medium-sized businesses that might have gone to a firm like Schwabe turning to much smaller law offices for their own needs, Horenstein says. He has three attorneys on staff.
“We’re attracting complex business and real estate work that used to go to larger firms,” Horenstein said.
Vancouver-based Greenen & Greenen, which specializes in personal injury, criminal and domestic cases, grew to eight employees at one point, and decided that was too big, says partner Ron Greenen.
“With our focus, that was unmanageable,” he says, so now the firm is staying small with four lawyers on staff.
Not every firm sees strength in small staffs, however, as Portland-based Miller Nash showed when it merged with Seattle’s Graham and Dunn last year.
The new company, Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP, kept its Vancouver office, but is focused on how size will create new opportunities.
“Combining our two firms increases our ability to serve the banking, business and public sectors and further enhances our already powerful litigation team,” says Dennis Rawlinson, partner at the firm.
3. The economy matters — but not how you think
The nation’s largest law firms shed hundreds of jobs during the Great Recession, but for the small and mid-sized companies operating in Vancouver, the story was more mixed.
At Schwabe, a focus on helping banks manage their forclosed-on properties kept Russo’s practice group busy, while lawyers with other specialties had less work on their plates.
Greenen and Greenen saw less business and real estate work during the recession, but criminal, personal injury and domestic relations work held steady.
When Hornstein started his firm immediately after the recession, he opted to use technology and flat fees to stay nimble and keep costs low. That choice has helped his firm to win new clients as the economy improved.
For new graduates just finishing law school today, the job market is brutal, Greenen says. But that’s in part because schools are flooding the job market with record numbers of graduates.
Those who can find jobs are entering firms on a growth trajectory.
“Our revenue was up 68 percent in the most recent year,” Hornstein says. “That has a lot to do with the recession being over.”
4. Shifting community.
Greenen grew up in Clark County, and has been practicing law here since the 1970s.
And compared to big cities and other communities, he says the local attorneys still feel like family. Lawyers may butt heads as adversaries when representing clients, but they remain friendly when they’re off the clock.
As the county has grown, however, that’s started to change.
“More attorneys in the county create a challenge,” Greenen says. “When we know each other, we remain cordial.”
Russo says he expects the growth to continue to reshape Clark County’s legal community — but he’s optimistic that lawyers will remain engaged.
“The economy is growing and I have good feelings about what’s coming for the city of Vancouver,” he says. “And we like our lawyers to be committed to the community.”