Law Scribbler

Industry, not practice, makes perfect


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Photo of Victor Li by Saverio Truglia

For most lawyers practicing today, law firms have always been divided into practice groups. Trial lawyers join the litigation group. Deal-makers are in mergers and acquisitions, corporate law or transactional law, which basically means they deal with lots of money. Real estate lawyers, meanwhile, deal with real property.

So it was a bit jarring to hear about Husch Blackwell’s decision to eliminate traditional practice groups altogether. Instead the Missouri-based firm, whose largest offices are in Kansas City and St. Louis, groups its lawyers based on what service industry they specialize in. The firm has six industry groups: Energy and Natural Resources; Financial Services; Food and Agribusiness; Healthcare, Life Sciences and Pharmaceuticals; Real Estate, Development and Construction; and Technology, Manufacturing and Transportation. Each group contains a cross section of attorneys from various disciplines within the firm, including corporate, intellectual property, litigation, and labor and employment.

Firm chairman Maurice Watson says Husch Blackwell launched its reorganization plan two years ago. As with most law firms, the economic recession was one reason, but he says client demand played a greater role in his decision to shake up his firm.

“We wanted to differentiate ourselves from our competitors,” says Watson. “The best way to do that, based on feedback from our clients, was to develop the industry/service group focus that the firm has today.”

Setting up a few industry groups in a law firm isn’t new. “The formation of multispecialty industry, geography or ‘type of client’ groups to facilitate marketing by implicit business and industry expertise is common,” says Ward Bower, principal at legal consulting firm Altman Weil. “But organizing an entire firm like this is rare.”

Kent Zimmerman, a consultant at Zeughauser Group—another legal consulting firm—agrees, noting that he didn’t know of any other large law firm that had eliminated traditional practice groups and reorganized around industry groups. (According to the 2014 Am Law 200 figures, Husch Blackwell is 104th in gross revenue, bringing in $302 million.)

Husch’s ultimate goal is for clients to look to the firm not solely as outside counsel hired to perform a specific duty, but as trusted counselors capable of providing valuable business and legal advice.

Understanding that many lawyers aren’t wired to think as business or industry advisers, Husch requires its attorneys to become fully immersed in the industry they serve. Lawyers are required to spend as much time as possible with their clients learning about their chosen service industry.

“We understand that [lawyers] don’t come that way,” Watson says, “so we have to do it.”


Clarification

Print and initial Web versions of the August Law Scribbler column (”Industry, Not Practice, Makes Perfect”) should have noted that Kansas City and St. Louis host the two largest offices in the Missouri-based law firm Husch Blackwell.


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