BGO hires self-motivated, creative attorneys with a love for the law.
Attorneys are expected to embrace significant responsibility, manage cases, and represent clients according to the highest professional standards at all times.
Letters of interest from practicing lawyers, those holding judicial clerkships, and recent law graduates as well as law students are welcome, including letters for summer clerkships.
You may email Bill Bankston by clicking on his photo here or the blue button with his name. Please provide a current resume with references, writing sample, and a law school transcript.
Steve O’Hara, a BGO shareholder, has written the following pieces entitled Quality Over Quantity and Is the Practice of Law Business a Business?
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
The most gratifying part of practicing law is doing quality work. The value of the client’s appreciation cannot be quantified. Even if the client does not express appreciation, the attorney knows when quality work has been accomplished, and that knowledge provides confidence, which brings about more quality work, which brings about more satisfaction.
Money is not the most gratifying part of practicing law. Although money usually follows quality work, any gratification money provides is short-lived compared to the satisfaction received from a client’s appreciation or the lawyer’s knowledge of a job well done.
Years ago we prepared a trust for a client. At the trust signing, the client asked about our fee. I told the client the amount and said that the final bill was less than our usual fee for like work. The client responded that he was so appreciative of the work we had done that he wanted to pay our usual fee, even though it was substantially more than his bill.
This additional compensation was great. We needed it to help operate our firm. But what is of more lasting value is the memory of the client’s appreciation.
We had a client in the produce business who is now deceased. The client used to tell me that when he first got into the business in the 1950s, it was difficult for him to supply his customers with quality products. The quality of his produce always bothered him, although few customers complained.
The same ought to be true about our work. Clients may or may not realize when quality is lacking, but any absence of quality ought to bother us.
While money is not the most gratifying part of practicing law, money can undermine the lawyer’s ability to do quality work. Here it is not money itself that is the problem, but rather a preoccupation with money.
If the lawyer takes on large financial responsibilities, the lawyer may become vulnerable to the temptation to focus on quantity rather than quality.
In every field there is pressure to sacrifice quality for quantity. In the practice of law, quantity may mean accepting more work than the lawyer can handle or accepting work from persons with whom the lawyer would rather not be associated.
There are a number of steps the lawyer can take to help assure quality work. Many are common sense, such as reserving enough time for each project, exploring every issue, focusing on existing clients, as well as studying in order to stay current.
A simple step that does not get emphasized enough is for the lawyer to live well within means. The lawyer living beyond means is at risk of finding one day that the satisfaction of doing quality work was exchanged for unsatisfying things, requiring an unreasonable workload or clients the lawyer would rather not have, or both.
Steven T. O’Hara, August 28, 2013
IS THE PRACTICE OF LAW A BUSINESS?
Some years ago I was advising a Board of Directors when one of the Directors really did not like what I had to say. “What do you know?” he said to me privately. “You’re just a lawyer. You’re no businessman.”
One of the basic truths I was taught in law school, confirmed over many years as a lawyer, is that a law practice is not a business. Consider the words of Chief Judge Breitel writing for the New York Court of Appeals in Matter of Freeman, 34 N.Y.2d 1 (1974):
A profession is not a business. It is distinguished by the requirements of extensive formal training and learning, admission to practice by a qualifying licensure, a code of ethics imposing standards qualitatively and extensively beyond those that prevail or are tolerated in the marketplace, a system for discipline of its members for violation of the code of ethics, a duty to subordinate financial reward to social responsibility, and, notably, an obligation on its members,even in nonprofessional matters, to conduct themselves as members of a learned, disciplined and honorable occupation. These qualities distinguish professionals from others whose limitations on conduct are largely prescribed only by general legal standards and sanctions, whether civil or criminal. (See Pound, The Lawyer from Antiquity to Modern Times, pp. 4-10.) Interwoven with professional standards, of course, is pursuit of the ideal and that the profession not be debased by lesser commercial standards (see Drinker, Legal Ethics, pp. 210-273). Departures from the ideal, few or many, should rarely, if ever, justify a lowering of the standards (cf. Ryan, Address to the Graduating Law Students of the University of Wisconsin, 1873, 19 Notre Dame Lawyer 117, 135-140 ).
As a lawyer I hung out my shingle with an Alaska professional corporation. In Alaska professional corporations are prohibited from engaging in business. Alaska Statute 10.45.040 provides:
A professional corporation may not engage in business; however, it may own real and personal property necessary for or appropriate in rendering its own professional services and may invest its funds in all types of investments.
Business is honorable and great. It is just different from law. For example, in law there is no hesitation to disengage from a client when called for under the rules of professional conduct. A basic principle is that the loss of revenue to the lawyer from the disengagement is irrelevant to the decision.
By contrast, the businessperson may think it nuts to fire a customer unless the potential economic cost of maintaining the business relationship outweighs the potential economic benefit.
Let me be clear. My experience is that businesspeople are ethical. I grew up around business, including helping my father keep his books. A wholesaler of fruits and vegetables, he advised: “Integrity’s all you got. Once it’s gone, you got nothing.”
More specifically for us lawyers, independent judgment is all we have. Once it is gone, we have nothing.
In 1879 John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Standard Oil needed a lawyer. Rockefeller found Samuel C. T. Dodd:
When Rockefeller hired him in 1879, Dodd held out, not for more money or titles but for assurances of his integrity. Taking a relatively small salary (it would never exceed $25,000 a year), he resisted Rockefeller’s plea that he take Standard Oil stock, arguing that this might compromise his legal judgment, and he never became a Standard Director for that reason.
Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Chapter 13 (Vintage Books 2004), Kindle Edition.
A century ago Northwestern University had a professor by the name of Arthur Andersen who worked in the accounting field. A man of integrity, he did not compromise when rendering an opinion about a company’s books. In 1913 he founded an accounting firm bearing his name. The firm became a leader in its field but, unbelievably, it was forced to close its doors in 2002 for allegedly ignoring accounting practices that made the books of a lucrative client look favorable. That client was Enron Corporation.
Professor Andersen established “four cornerstones” for the firm: “provide good service to the client; produce quality audits; manage staff well; and produce profits for the firm.”
According to one accountant who worked at Arthur Andersen, the firm changed over the years “to the point that making profits eventually dwarfed all else.” He and other partners at Arthur Andersen joked “that the four cornerstones were really ‘three pebbles and a boulder.'” Brown and Dugan, Andersen’s Fall From Grace Is a Tale of Greed and Miscues, Wall St. J., June 7, 2002, at A6, Col. 1.
Rather than focused on profits the practice of law is focused, in my experience, on preserving independent judgment and training young lawyers who love the law. In turn the young lawyers train up new lawyers who guard independent judgment and train up new lawyers and so on. The result is the client is well served.
At BGO clients have worked with over three decades of BGO lawyers. Since 1977 Bill Bankston has been a one-man law school, training many a lawyer in their best years. Whether these lawyers remain at BGO or not, they are well trained to go out and make the world a better place.
In fact all BGO shareholders, with Bill’s example, have long welcomed the opportunity to train lawyers.
Another word for business is competition. There is nothing wrong with business, except where competition isolates rather than unites. Business school concepts can take a unified firm of collegial professionals and transform it into isolated units of production. They can leave young lawyers, who naturally have no “books of business,” with less opportunity for client interaction and advancement.
Where law is viewed as business, a law firm might adopt a business school mindset requiring each lawyer to justify his or her economic existence regularly, as if to a Board of MBAs. Sadly, lawyers in the firm might see one another as units of production rather than as colleagues. The question on everyone’s mind might devolve to: What have you done for me lately? The follow-up question might be: Could I make more money elsewhere?
Risking relationships in pursuit of personal profit is not only bad policy in the practice of law, it is bad policy in business. My father’s success as a businessman was based on the strength of his relationships with business associates for over 50 years.
In the wake of the 2008 economic collapse in the U.S. and across the world, business schools are drawing on the practice of law as a field where the interests of others are placed above self-interest. As Steven J. Harper explains:
Nohria [of Harvard Business School] identified the law as an example of a profession that business might emulate. His goal was to develop a more ethical core transcending attitudes that had come to dominate MBA programs. He even pushed for a lawyer-type MBA oath. Since then, students at some top schools, including Harvard, Columbia, and Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, have taken one.
Steven J. Harper, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis, Epilogue (Basic Books 2013), Kindle Edition.
A business school mindset could make it harder for young lawyers to become equity partners. Associates and other lawyers who own no equity in the firm could be viewed as part of a pyramid that needs to be preserved, with the pyramid creating wealth for the equity partners vested at the top. Moving lawyers to the top could be viewed negatively, at least in the vocabulary of business school, because more lawyers of equal rank could reduce “leverage” and make the firm “top heavy.”
With a business school mindset, so-called rainmakers might be paid more than those doing the work. As the saying goes, there are finders and there are grinders. The introvert who writes a great brief and prefers email to face time with a client might have less bargaining power within the firm (with a business school mindset) than an extravert with a “good book of business.”
Another example of a business school policy is eat what you kill. Here “eat what you kill” means that a partner might get paid based on what he or she gets credit for as contrasted with lockstep compensation such as where all partners are paid the same.
In the face of business influences, including eat what you kill, BGO‘s shareholders have given direction to the firm’s Board of Directors. Their concern is that placing too much emphasis on keeping score could make the law firm a firm in name only and waste a lot of time that could be spent helping clients. They believe the debiting and crediting of eat what you kill could destroy their collegial firm and replace it with a cost-sharing arrangement among lawyers who jealously guard from one another “their” respective clients. The direction, denominated a Statement of Intent, reads as follows:
This is a nonbinding statement among two or more shareholders of BGO (the “Firm”). Those not signing this statement either disagree with some or all of its content or simply wish to abstain. All affirm it is perfectly acceptable not to sign this statement.
Historically the Firm has treated shareholders equally in terms of compensation, including bonuses, so long as each has contributed roughly the same within a zone of reasonableness. Historically once an individual becomes a shareholder, the new shareholder’s compensation is adjusted over an appropriate number of years such that the individual’s compensation becomes equal with the other shareholders.
By the same token, on occasion one or more shareholders have voluntarily frozen their salaries and have removed themselves from consideration for bonuses.
The firm’s approach to compensation is not perfect. We believe the Firm’s approach, while imperfect, has proven itself in terms of fostering strength and permanency in the relationship among shareholders and the best legal services to clients.
The Firm is aware of approaches to compensation used by other firms, including formulas thatgive credit to those who bring work in the door and manage associates, as well as those who do the work.
We believe formulas may engender competition among shareholders, such as who gets credit for bringing work in the door. We believe such competition can work against the best interests of the Firm and clients.
The Firm’s approach to compensation has evolved over the years and will no doubt continue to evolve. The Firm may consider any formula approach at any time. We have an open mind on the subject.
We do not anticipate supporting an approach to compensation that is based on a formula unless it fosters strength and permanency in the relations among shareholders and the best legal services to clients.
Steven T. O’Hara, February 22, 2014
Copyright 2014 by Bankston Gronning O'Hara, P.C. All rights reserved.