Phoenix, Denver And Las Vegas - Law Firms Ballard Spahr - Building Out West

Friday, April 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Please tell our readers a little bit about your background.

Thomasch: Following graduation from Duke Law School in 1967, I joined a law firm on the East Coast. After three years, I decided that I wanted more courtroom experience. I was fortunate to obtain a position as a trial attorney at the Department of Justice. After fulfilling my commitment at Justice, I accepted an appointment for one academic year as a visiting professor of law. Then, in 1973, I moved to Denver and have been in private practice here ever since. I joined Ballard Spahr in 1987 and became the managing partner of the firm's Denver office shortly thereafter.

Editor: How would you describe the Denver legal market?

Thomasch: For a city of Denver's size, the legal community has a remarkably high level of talent and sophistication. That talent is dispersed among a relatively large number of firms. Twenty of the largest 250 law firms in the country have offices in Denver. There are also a number of excellent specialty firms. There are, of course, several large indigenous Denver law firms, but, as a result of the presence of so many national firms and boutiques, the larger Denver firms do not dominate the top end of the market in the way one sees in many other cities.

Of course, virtually all the firms want to attract the same prominent lawyers and to acquire the same challenging legal work, so the competition is significant. Nonetheless, there is an almost universal civility among the members of the bar.

Editor: Does the Denver office have a particular focus?

Thomasch: Our practice in Denver includes each of the firm's five major departments. The three largest practice areas in our Denver office are litigation, real estate, and business and finance.

Editor: In addition to being the managing partner of Ballard Spahr's Denver office, you were recently appointed chairman of the firm-wide Litigation Department. How large is the litigation department and how is it organized?

Thomasch: We have almost 200 lawyers in the department. There are trial lawyers in each of our offices, but the department is organized on a national basis.

Within the Litigation Department, we have various practice groups, each of which has a practice group head. Examples of the practice groups would be product liability, intellectual property, white collar crime, employment and labor, environmental, bankruptcy and creditors' rights, and commercial litigation.

Of course, complex lawsuits do not always fit concisely within one niche. As a result, we staff a case from multiple practice groups if expertise in multiple areas is needed.

Editor: This is the first time that Ballard Spahr's head of litigation nationwide is resident outside the firm's Philadelphia office. Does it signify that Ballard Spahr is engaged more fully in a national practice?

Thomasch: Yes. In particular, it reflects the firm's commitment to expanding our presence in this region. There are a number of tangible signs of that commitment. The fact that the head of the Litigation Department is in Denver is just one of them. Another example is that the national head of our public finance practice is in Salt Lake City. Having two of the firm's five department chairs resident in the Rocky Mountain corridor says something about how committed we are to growth in the west.

Editor: You mentioned a commitment to expanding in the region. Can you say anything more about that?

Thomasch: Certainly. The Rocky Mountain region and the southwest have a very specific role in our plans - both immediate and long-term.

We have been in Denver for almost 25 years and in Salt Lake City for 18 years. Building from that base, we are going to expand in this region in terms of locations, number of lawyers and expertise. Cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas are obviously growth areas with relatively young, well educated, successful populations. Our clients see tremendous business opportunities in the region, and we want to be here with them. Our goal is to create a presence comparable to the presence we have in the mid-Atlantic region as a result of the concentration of our offices in Philadelphia, Wilmington, New Jersey, Baltimore, and Washington, DC.

Editor: Do you think that type of regional presence will be of interest to clients?

Thomasch: Absolutely. Corporate clients doing business in the region will need the expertise, resources and connections to the financial markets that they are accustomed to obtaining through their principal law firms on both coasts. But at the same time, they will also need a local connection with city and state government, the business community and the courts. One alternative would be multiple law firms. A different, and we believe better, alternative would be to consolidate that representation into a firm that fills both roles.

Editor: Have you seen a trend among clients toward consolidating legal work into fewer law firms?

Thomasch: Yes, several of our clients have done so, and the trend clearly seems to be in that direction. As you will recall, when you recently interviewed Julie Mazza of DuPont [ Editor's note: To read the interview, visit www.metrocorpcounsel.com and put "Mazza" in the site's search box ], she mentioned that DuPont has reduced its roster of 350 law firms to 42 firms - which we are fortunate to be among - and has created a partnering relationship with its outside counsel. In the past few years, others among our national and regional clients have undertaken similar law firm convergence programs. We want to be in a position to offer that type of partnering relationship to clients for their legal work in this region.

Editor: You mentioned your firm's relationships with national and regional corporate clients. In your experience, what contributes to a successful relationship between in-house counsel and their law firms?

Thomasch: In two words, no surprises. Whether it is strategy, staffing, fees, deadlines or something else, there can be no surprises.

To state the obvious, constant communication is crucial. So is a complete understanding of the client's business and operating style.

Perhaps most importantly, outside counsel needs to understand the client's goals and objectives and direct their efforts toward that end. Many lawyers, particularly in big case litigation, get too caught up in the process of their work and lose sight of the end zone. Outside counsel must see the world through the eyes of the client.

The most knowledgeable users of the legal services of private law firms are in-house counsel. The plaintiffs' personal injury bar may be able to tell their clients, "I am the lawyer. I will handle this and I will call you if I need you," but that attitude definitely does not lead to a successful relationship with corporate clients. In-house counsel is not a bystander. They are the client, but they are also co-counsel in the fullest sense of the term

Let me give you a personal example. During the past several years, I have had the privilege of representing The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in a series of trials. Virtually every day during these several years, I have had multiple telephone conversations and e-mail exchanges with Deborah Okey, Goodyear's Associate General Counsel in Charge of Litigation. She is up to speed on every significant development, guides strategy, makes judgment calls and is present in the courtroom for every trial. I don't know how we could have successfully handled those cases without that type of coordination and constant communication.

Editor: Speaking of trials, I know your personal practice focuses on representation of companies in courtroom trials. What do you see as the future of courtroom trials in resolving business disputes?

Thomasch: There is much discussion in the legal press of the fact that fewer and fewer cases go to trial and that the court system, in the view of some, is less than perfectly suited to resolving business disputes. While it is true that a smaller percentage of cases are tried and that there can be challenges in presenting complex cases to a jury, the trial of cases will continue to be a fact of life in corporate America.

In some instances a trial is unavoidable. In other instances going to trial serves an affirmative purpose. For example, when a company is faced with a series of product liability lawsuits or employment lawsuits, it may be necessary to go to trial in several cases in order to bring the expectations of the plaintiffs' bar into line with reality. If a company is reluctant to go to trial and its outside counsel is not capable of doing so, that company is at an enormous disadvantage in today's world.

Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer lawyers who are skilled at trying complex cases to juries. There is a premium on such trial lawyers now and it is only going to become more pronounced in the coming years. Developing that expertise in the next generation of lawyers is a task we in the trial bar must find a way to accomplish, and it's something that I intend to make a significant priority at Ballard Spahr during my tenure as Department Chair.