Atlanta: A Legal Platform For The Region And The World

Saturday, April 1, 2006 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. Stephenson, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Stephenson: I moved to Atlanta in 1971 after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School and began practicing law with the firm of Alston, Miller & Gaines, now known as Alston & Bird, where I practiced for about six years and became a partner. I left in 1978 to form a new firm with a group of lawyers from different firms in Atlanta where I practiced until the fall of 1985, when I joined King & Spalding as a partner.

Editor: What were the things that attracted you to King & Spalding?

Stephenson: I had been in practice for 14 years at the time, so I was in a position to look at Atlanta firms through mature eyes. Among the Atlanta firms, King & Spalding had always been a leader, and I had a number of acquaintances at the firm. I saw it as a terrific opportunity. I am a real estate lawyer, and at that time my practice was focused on the lender/finance side and had an institutional flavor which fit very well with the real estate group at King & Spalding, which had long represented real estate developers and entrepreneurs.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice. How has it evolved over the course of your career?

Stephenson: Atlanta has always been a "real estate town" with a great deal of development and financing activity to keep real estate lawyers busy. As the city grew so did my real estate finance practice. I represented a number of real estate developers and lenders, and over time that led to an introduction to GE Capital in 1978, which is a relationship that has grown and expanded over the years and continues to be a dominant part of my practice today. With the passage of time, my practice has become more focused on the equity investment side, which reflects a primary interest of GE Capital today.

Editor: And Atlanta? How has the city changed over the years you have been part of its legal community?

Stephenson: Atlanta has been dominated by growth. From 1971 until today the city has more than doubled in population and that population is very diverse. We have a large African-American community and growing Hispanic and Asian communities as well. That represents a radical change from the early 1970s and has contributed enormously to the city's growth. Over this period of time the city has also become a significant corporate headquarters town, which has enabled a great many lawyers to grow their practices. It has also changed somewhat the character of the city, although Atlanta remains a small town in many respects. The opportunities for professionals have been considerable over the years, but the city continues to offer many of the benefits of a smaller community.

Editor: The links between King & Spalding and Atlanta go back many years. Can you tell us something about the firm's origins in Atlanta and the role it has played as a member of the Atlanta community over the years?

Stephenson: The firm was founded by Jack Spalding and Alex King in 1885. Their original office was just down the street from the offices at 191 Peachtree Street that we have just vacated. The firm has grown with the city and has always played a significant role in its business, civic and community life. Today, lawyers from King & Spalding serve on the governing boards of more than 150 non-profit, educational and civic organizations in Atlanta. Community involvement has been a part of the firm's culture for generations.

In 1960, for example, one of our partners, John Sibley, now deceased, chaired a commission that recommended to the Governor that Georgia's public schools should stay open in the face of integration. The Sibley Commission, as it was known, may be one of the reasons why Georgia approached the civil rights movement somewhat differently from other Southern states.

One of John Sibley's sons, Horace Sibley, now a retired partner, has been involved in the community throughout his career and continues his involvement today. Under the auspices of the City of Atlanta and the United Way, he chairs a commission dedicated to the elimination of homelessness in our city over the next ten years. The commission has made significant progress, and, needless to say, Horace has enlisted many of his colleagues at the firm to help in this effort.

The hosting of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games was very significant for Atlanta, and a number of King & Spalding lawyers worked to help the city secure the bid. After the Games were awarded to Atlanta, the firm provided a year's worth of legal services to the organizing committee as a civic donation. The Atlanta Olympics marked a renaissance for downtown Atlanta, and the firm takes great pride in helping the Olympics transform the city's central business district.

Editor: Are there particular strengths - legal disciplines and practice groups - for which the firm's Atlanta office is known?

Stephenson: Several come to mind. Tort liability defense work in the automotive and pharmaceutical industries is a key focus of our practice in the Atlanta office. Another leading group is corporate, which includes corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions and private equity. We take considerable pride in having one of the leading corporate practices in the region. In addition, intellectual property has been an increasingly important area for us in Atlanta. And, of course, real estate has been a dominant driver of Atlanta's growth and has helped propel that group to national prominence. Finally, Chris Wray heads an extremely strong white collar crime and government investigations practice out of our Atlanta office.

Editor: And the clients served by the Atlanta office? Regional? National?

Stephenson: It is a combination. We have had a longstanding relationship with The Coca-Cola Company which dates to the 1920s. SunTrust Bank, Home Depot and UPS are all headquartered in Atlanta and are major clients of the firm. We do a great deal of work with GE, GM and Texaco, which are national and international companies. The firm represents about half of the Fortune 100 in some capacity.

Editor: How does the Atlanta office connect to the rest of the firm? Are the Atlanta attorneys able to call upon other offices in terms of expertise and personnel in staffing their projects?

Stephenson: King & Spalding prides itself on a tradition of being a "one firm" firm with multiple offices. The relationships among our partners are seamless, and it is a trademark of our firm - and noted by clients - that we are able to draw upon all of the firm's resources, wherever they may reside, in meeting client needs. In the recent sale of Georgia-Pacific to Koch Industries, and in the Sprint-Nextel merger, our Atlanta and New York offices were heavily engaged. In real estate much of our work passes among the Atlanta, Houston and New York offices. All of this represents an ongoing coordination of different practice groups and offices.

Editor: I understand that you are in the process of moving to a new headquarters building in Midtown Atlanta.

Stephenson: Our lease expired in March 2006. This gave us an opportunity to look at where we should be for the next 15 years. In 1991, when we moved into our former location, things like e-mail did not exist, and the explosion of technology and changes in how law is practiced today made us believe that it made more sense to relocate to new space rather than renovate in place. We have designed our work space to reflect current trends in legal practice, but at the same time we recognize that continued change is inevitable so we have built flexibility into the design to allow us to adapt our space in the future. We will be better able to serve our clients with our new premises and will have room to grow as well.

Editor: What are the attractions of Midtown?

Stephenson: Midtown is at the center of Atlanta's cultural district. A new Symphony Hall is planned - with an absolutely beautiful design - and our building will overlook it. Midtown is also becoming a commercial center and is more of a 24-hour living and working environment reflective of our practice today. When I began my career in 1971, virtually every Atlanta law firm was located within a three-block radius of Five Points. Today, almost all of those firms have relocated to Midtown.

Editor: How are you fixed for future growth with the new office?

Stephenson: We have expansion options that will allow us to add floors over time as we grow. We hope that the new building will provide us with a home for the next 15 years and beyond. We are also moving our litigation support staff - which is currently housed offsite - to Midtown, where it will be co-located with a new child care center for our lawyers and staff. We anticipate being well provided for future growth.

Editor: Are there particularly hot areas where you anticipate growth?

Stephenson: King & Spalding has always looked for growth opportunities. We have grown over time not only in response to our clients' demands and needs, but also as a result of adding truly outstanding lawyers as lateral partners. For example, Chris Wray, who served in the current Bush Administration as Assistant Attorney General of the United States in charge of the Criminal Division, returned to the firm last year to lead our white collar crime and government investigations practice. With respect to key areas, IP is certainly something of great interest, and real estate and tort liability defense practices are both growth areas for the Atlanta legal market and our firm in general. Our recent addition of lateral partners in New York and Houston in the tort liability practice group compliments our continued growth in this area.

Editor: Speaking of the future, would you share with us your thoughts about Atlanta and the region generally as an investment destination and place to do business over the next few years?

Stephenson: Atlanta will continue to grow and continue to attract population. While Atlanta has had its setbacks - both GM and Ford will be closing assembly plants here in the future - we have been able to look at these events as opportunities. Already there is discussion concerning the redevelopment of the sites formerly housing GM and Ford operations, and they present significant job creation possibilities. There is a great deal of optimism concerning the continued growth of the city, its metropolitan area and the region generally.

Editor: Where would you like the King & Spalding Atlanta office to be in, say, five years?

Stephenson: Historically, King & Spalding has grown as the city has grown. However, as we have become a national and, indeed, an international law firm and as our clients have increasingly become global, we have grown in response to our clients' needs that are not necessarily Atlanta- or Southeast-oriented. Technology helps us service our clients wherever they may be located and wherever the legal expertise may reside.

Please email the interviewee at mstephenson@kslaw.com with questions about this interview.