Atlanta And The Southeast - Law Firms A Labor And Employment Firm With Its Roots In Atlanta

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. Harrison, would you tell our readers something about your career?

Harrison: I have been practicing for forty years. At the time I started practicing it was possible to be admitted to the bar after two years of law school. I took the bar exam after my second year, passed, and began working for a very small labor firm in Atlanta. Very early on it became evident to me that an effective lawyer is one with a certain amount of freedom, and that that entailed having your own clients. I spent much of my time during those early years trying to develop my own clients rather than working for someone else. I was fairly successful in this effort, and that laid the groundwork for the practice the firm has today. Another thing that contributed to the foundation of the firm's practice was the recognition that a niche practice entails having a considerable degree of expertise, and that expertise attracts clients.

Editor: Please describe your practice. How has it changed over the course of your career?

Harrison: When I began my career there was no such thing as a labor and employment firm, which is how we categorize ourselves today. We characterized ourselves as labor lawyers who worked on behalf of management. Most of our work involved either the National Labor Relations Act or the Railway Labor Act. The latter is the statute that governs the conduct of employers and employees in the airline and railroad industries. With the exception of some civil litigation - contract disputes, in the main - for existing clients, we handled very little litigation at that time. Labor law entailed union organizing, unfair labor practices, disputes growing out of labor negotiations, and the like, and litigation was not part of our practice. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed all that. The large general practice law firms were reluctant to take on this kind of work, and that left the field open to the labor firms. As the Civil Rights Act was amended over time, the volume of employment-related litigation grew. In time, it resulted in a tremendous flow of work, particularly with the addition of jury trials. Our initial practice also involved the Fair Labor Standards Act, and later OSHA came along as did other employment related laws. All in all, much of the success we have enjoyed is due to President Lyndon Johnson and his activist agenda during the 1960s.

Of course, technology has had a huge impact on the practice of law, and it has made lawyers much more efficient. Clients have benefited from this efficiency because even though hourly rates have increased we are able to do more in less time.

Editor: Ford & Harrison has a very interesting history. Please tell us about its origins in 1978 and its evolution since that time.

Harrison: It was a two-step process. The primary reason the lawyers who started the firm in 1978 took the first step was because we were fairly young and had a long horizon before us. We wanted to take an active role in expanding our practice rather than let it come to us. We were based in Atlanta, but as our client base grew, we started traveling to a variety of places beyond Atlanta and the Southeast. That was fine so long as we were engaged in labor work primarily, but as I have indicated litigation was becoming more and more central to the practice. With litigation, our clients wanted us to be where the litigation was, and that entailed geographic expansion. The second step in the process, which was mostly client-driven, entailed a conscious decision to evolve from a regional law firm to a national one in order to meet the expectations of our clients. This also represented an acknowledgement on our part that these clients were consolidating their legal work in fewer and fewer firms with the passage of time. We needed to be where they wanted us to be if we were to have the volume of work necessary for us to attain critical mass. It is critical mass that enables us to compete with other leading firms. A firm with extraordinary expertise is not going to be able to attract clients if it is perceived as lacking the critical mass of lawyers and support staff sufficient to handle their problems on an ongoing basis.

Editor: How does the firm address the competition represented by labor and employment law practices that are part of a large, full-service law firm?

Harrison: I think that is a problem whose time has come and gone. Over the course of our firm's history we have never regarded our principal competition to be the other national labor and employment firms, but rather the competition represented by the labor and employment departments of the large general practice firms. In recent years that competition seems to have faded to a certain extent. Our overhead and costs are considerably lower because we are not maintaining a deep bench of experts in virtually every field of law. For that reason our hourly rates tend to be somewhat lower than those of the general practice firms. Not only does that fact make us more attractive to potential clients, the presence of rate pressure at the general practice firms results in fewer opportunities for labor and employment lawyers in these firms to go out and develop new business. In addition, employment practices liability insurance has become an increasing part of our practice, and it is impossible for the large general practice firms to handle matters at the rates that insurance carriers are willing to pay. Going forward, I am not certain that they will continue to be our principal competitors.

Editor: Any thoughts on additional offices? Additional practice areas?

Harrison: We are committed to geographic expansion. We have targeted the Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West regions and perhaps the Pacific Northwest as our next ventures. We do not anticipate taking on new practice areas. We think that it makes the most sense for us to stick with what we do well.

Editor: You have also seen a significant evolution in Atlanta over this time. Would you tell us about the firm's relationship with Atlanta and its role in the civic and cultural life of the city?

Harrison: The population of Atlanta has quadrupled since I began practicing law. As a firm we try to support the cultural and civic life of the communities in which we practice. We do encounter the difficulties that arise from each member of the firm attempting to get the firm behind their favorite civic or charitable undertaking. My own view is that the firm would be better off supporting one or two things in a big way, as opposed to a large number in a modest way. That is not always possible, of course, given the fact that everyone has his own idea of what we should support.

Editor: You have been engaged in civic and community work for many years, particularly in support of Emory University. Would you tell us about your undertakings in this area?

Harrison: The one constant about a great university is that you can never repay the institution for the true value of your education. I have made donations hundreds of times over what it cost me to get my education. What is necessary, I think, is to try to help the institution do for others what it did for you. That entails supporting the institution in a variety of ways and, if possible, becoming involved. In my case, I have been on the Emory Board of Visitors, I have served on the Emory Law School Council and I have worked on any number of fundraising and development projects. This is my way of trying to see that the institution is perpetuated so that future generations may benefit in the way I have. One of the truly great things about America is that through education people are given the opportunity to accomplish things that would not otherwise be available to them. This is not the case in a great many other countries. I have also been involved in an independent elementary school for 35 years, so I think it is fair to say that my community involvement is primarily in the educational field.

Editor: How about the firm as a whole? What are the kinds of things that Ford & Harrison undertakes to enhance the life of the city?

Harrison: There are as many things as there are people at the firm. We encourage our people to find things that they believe deserving of their support and then to commit to them. We are involved in a variety of Atlanta Bar Association activities. We support United Way of Atlanta and the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, and we have a number of people engaged in supporting the city's music community and theatre arts. Our firm provides a fellowship at the Legal Aid Society of Atlanta for four months each year.

Editor: How does community and pro bono work relate to the firm's reputation and standing in the community?

Harrison: I think you are known by the company you keep. There is a very strong perception that playing a leading role in the law firm community carries with it an obligation to take a leadership role in civic and community activities. It is expected. If you fail to accept this responsibility, people are going to wonder why.

A firm that is engaged in community and pro bono work benefits both within the firm and on the outside as a consequence of this activity. The individuals who participate feel good about themselves and about the firm, and that contributes to a positive firm culture. At the same time, the firm's clients feel that they have made the right decision in retaining the firm to represent them, and that the firm's community and pro bono undertakings reflect well on both the firm and its clients.

Editor: What about the future? What do you see for Atlanta down the road, say, five years? As an investment destination and place to do business?

Harrison: Once you get the momentum going it is almost impossible to get derailed. The 1996 Olympic Games put Atlanta on the world map, and I think that has had an enormous impact on the city's perception of itself and the world's perception of it. Today 16 Fortune 500 corporations have their headquarters here. Forty years ago some of these corporations did not even exist. Atlanta has also become the home of a number of very important charitable and non-profit organizations in recent years, which adds to the city's reputation as an attractive destination. I think that things are only going to get better over the coming years.

Editor: Where would you like to see Ford & Harrison in five years? And specifically the Atlanta office?

Harrison: I think we will continue to see an increase in the consolidation of our practice area. That will translate into fewer firms doing the kinds of things that we do. We will continue to grow - albeit at a moderate pace - and we will continue to be offering the very finest quality of service in the labor and employment practice area.

Please email the interviewee at lharrison@fordharrison.com with questions about this interview.