The past year has been one of recovery for Idahos legal industry. Hiring and wages are up for lawyers. A new law school has opened in Boise. And several firms say their work load is growing, changing or otherwise benefiting from a change in focus during the downturn.
One of the states largest law firms, Holland & Hart, is getting ready to relocate. The firm will occupy all of floor 15 and parts of 14 and 16 of Eighth & Main, the skyscraper under construction in the former hole at 8th and Main streets in Downtown Boise. Holland & Harts senior partner, Fred Mack, has said the move will allow it to add more lawyers and expand its specialties in business, litigation and environmental law.
Yet some midsize local firms interviewed by Business Insider say theyre still cautious about recovery and dont expect to hire many new associates soon. All the firms declined to disclose revenues, pay and rates.
PARSONS BEHLE: Building a broader base
You may remember them as Zarian Midgley.
The Boise law firm of Zarian, Midgley & Johnson PLLC had the largest team of intellectual property lawyers in the state.
The firm had grown quickly after opening with four lawyers in 2007. But its partners had a wish list. Zarian Midgley wanted to give clients a longer menu of services. It wanted more horsepower going into high-stakes lawsuits. It wanted to ramp up its ability to recruit registered patent attorneys from a large pool in Utah.
So in November, Zarian Midgley merged with the Boise office of Parsons Behle & Latimer, a 130-year-old Salt Lake City firm with more than 100 lawyers and offices in Reno and Las Vegas. Business is up since then, according to attorneys at the firm.
Im now able to offer my clients ... far more services and far more breadth than I was able to last October, says Brook Bond, a partner who specializes in complex business, environmental and commercial litigation. My practice has grown significantly over the past 10 months.
Patent and intellectual property attorney Christopher Cuneo agrees. It definitely is a better cross-sell for us, he says.
That doesnt mean the former boutique IP law firm is now a one-stop shop where inventors can settle a custody dispute and take care of a DUI charge while applying for a patent. But if a client has an employment-law question, one of Bonds new coworkers can answer it. And the Boise office is now a call away from a crew of Utah lawyers who handle divorce, tax and business law.
Most everybody was, or could be, admitted to the patent bar before, Bond says. Thats changed since the merger. Four of the Boise offices latest hires werent patent lawyers they practice in areas like health care, environment, employment and insurance law.
The Boise attorneys were in a good place to negotiate a merger when they did, too. Idaho is one of the cheapest places to get IP-law work done, so many Zarian Midgley clients had been attracted by the lawyers experience paired with the lower price, Bond says.
With the advent next March of a first to file rule for patents a switch from the first to invent rule that established ownership before there is increasing demand for IP lawyers. Parsons Behle cited the ability to offer patent-law services as a great benefit when it announced the merger.
ANGSTMAN JOHNSON: Waiting out the downturn
Angstman Johnson & Associates pivoted to stay busy. The Boise firm and its seven attorneys are used to change. In the past few years, Angstman Johnson has:
- Counted real estate investor Jean-Pierre Boespflug among its top clients. That is, until Boespflug vanished from Boise during high-profile legal disputes over the Tamarack resort.
- Acquired the immigration practice of Rep. Raul Labrador after he was elected.
- Gotten a lot more work in bankruptcy, loan modifications and other debt-related issues. Six years ago, 2 to 3 percent of Angstman Johnsons work was for the Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee Jeremy J. Gugino. Now that work makes up 15 or 20 percent of the firms business, says managing partner Thomas J. T.J. Angstman.
The bankruptcy trustee collects debtors assets that arent exempt under the Bankruptcy Code, sells them and distributes the proceeds to creditors. One of Guginos first orders of business, in 2010, was to liquidate Tamarack Resort equipment to repay creditors. More recently he has been involved in the high-profile bankruptcy of former Canyon County Prosecutor John Bujak.
Normally, we might have been representing a real estate developer, but now we have a bankruptcy trustee who (could be) dealing with the bankruptcy of a developer, says Angstman, who also is a licensed real estate broker.
One of the biggest things that happened to Angstman Johnson in the past year involved no change at all. The firm decided not to downsize during the post-recession years, under the expectation that business would pick up again, says Angstman.
I needed to keep the team together, he says. The downside for the legal job market is that Angstman Johnsons decision to stay fully staffed through the dry spell means it isnt hiring even though its work load is picking up again.
Angstman says the firm has hired paralegals instead of lawyers. Thats because a lot of clients need help with transactions starting a business or writing a real estate construction contract instead of litigation.
A paralegal can do a lot of that without a lawyer, Angstman says.
He says the Treasure Valley economic recovery is reflected in the firms work.
A year ago, the firm was handling lots of distressed-asset purchases. Now were seeing more standard non-distressed type deals, he says. The enjoyment of my job goes up in times where were dealing with (those) transactions. ... The people were working with are happier about the situation.
GIVENS PURSLEY: Stability in challenging times
Givens Pursley says its wide range of practices has helped it maintain jobs and revenues.
Demand for real estate and related legal services diminished during the recession, while litigation and health care practices picked up, according to Robert White, lead attorney in the Employment Law Group at Givens Pursley.
There are practice areas that slowed down some for everybody, White says.
In response, the firm held off hiring for a couple of years to preserve its staff that includes nearly three dozen attorneys.
In the past few years, it began to hire again about one or two new lawyers a year. The most recent hires are two law students who will begin work as soon as they graduate in December and in the spring. Hiring is about maintaining a balance so that theres enough work for all staff members, he says.
The firm, started in 1977 by four attorneys specializing in commercial real estate and litigation, also has transitioned to the leadership of younger partners from the founders, he says.
Practice areas now include bankruptcy, business and finance, health care, employment, First Amendment and media, land use, and water, natural resources and environmental law.
White says theres still a glut of attorneys and law students nationwide looking for work. I get resumes from all over the country, he says.
Going forward, the Treasure Valleys economic comeback will be slow, White says.
To a certain extent, its probably going to level out. Weve seen regional firms come into Boise, but I dont know that Boises as hot as it was. There are not as many businesses wanting to come here, he says. However, people are feeling confident that its going to be a good market, but its not going to be booming like it was years ago.
STOEL RIVES: Clients are value buyers
Stoel Rives says its customers want more service and are watching their dollars.
Historically, law firms grew by hiring students fresh from law school and allowing them to play small roles on large cases as they learned to be lawyers.
Now clients are reluctant to see their money spent that way, says Kris Ormseth, office managing partner of Stoel Rives in Boise, a firm of 19 attorneys.
Weve seen that shrink, he says.
Ormseth says he expects the local legal market to increase in competition as consumers demand higher levels of service and are more conservative in their spending.
Stoel Rives Boise office opened in 1991 with two attorneys. Its part of a regional firm that now has 400 attorneys in seven states mostly in the West. Stoel Rives founded and sponsors the Idaho Innovation Awards that recognize high-tech companies and inventors as part of the Idaho Technology Councils Hall of Fame. This years awards will take place Tuesday, Oct. 2, at the Boise Centre.
Ormseth says 2011 was an outstanding year, mostly because of the firms multiple practice areas.
The Boise office specializes in corporate, environmental and natural resources, labor and employment, real estate, project development, and food and beverage issues, including alcoholic beverage law. Its trial group focuses on complex commercial litigation, including contract disputes, intellectual property, securities, class actions and antitrust matters.
Over the last few months, weve had some good mergers and acquisitions, Ormseth says. Litigation has been our most consistently busy practice, and environmental law. We have a very active emergent high-tech, startup practice.
Ormseth says the firm hires in response to client demands.
The most recent hires weve had have been in litigation and construction law, he says.
The firms expansion has been slow but consistent, even through the economic downturn, he says. Even real estate and corporate mergers and acquisitions were busy at times during the recession.
We had solid clients to take advantage of companies for sale in distress, Ormseth says.
Overall revenues have steadily increased over the last several years at the firm, he said. Last year was a very good year for our firm and the Boise office in particular ... because of the diversification of work (areas).
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey