The young & the restless

Law firms wrangle over ways to attract and keep talent that's headed to the top of the profession.
By Edward Martin
Maggie Frank

In his opening statement, James M. Roane III had predicted things would get ugly, and they have. He holds up a photograph — as wide as his outstretched arms —of tangled metal and turns to the jury. “There was a family in this car. The other driver just goes right through the stop sign and plows straight into the oncoming vehicle.”

He is persistent but soft-spoken. The crash in Graham was so brutal it broke the safety seat in which a 4-month-old girl was riding in the back seat, hurling her into the windshield. Roane, representing the family, asks her father to testify about the girl, now 7, lagging behind in school and showing signs of permanent brain injury. “She hasn’t been right since,” the man says, citing impaired speech, blackouts, crying jags and limbs that jerk involuntarily.

When his turn comes, the lawyer representing the other driver and a textile mill — the driver was on the clock — doesn’t dispute Roane’s description of the accident. But don’t jump to conclusions, he tells the jury. “This story has some twists and turns.” He attacks the victim’s family, suggesting that child abuse, not the wreck, caused the injuries.

In the give-and-take of the videotaped proceedings of this mock trial that will test his arguments before going to trial, nobody notices the fingernail-size scars on Roane’s temples. But they help explain the passion he brings to his cases. It’s one reason a personal-injury attorney — a specialty some vilify as ambulance chasing — was elected the state’s top young lawyer in this year’s Business North Carolina Legal Elite.

This is the first year the magazine’s annual poll of the state’s bar has included a category for lawyers under 40 — the profession’s young guns. Talented young lawyers are hot properties, which is edging up compensation and stoking competition by firms to hire top law-school graduates and lure away other firms’ junior stars — laterals, they call them. Roane’s selection might even have a downside for his firm, Greensboro-based Crumley & Associates. “Everybody will be trying to hire him away,” his boss, Bob Crumley, jokes.

No young lawyer is exactly like another, so there’s no universal formula for attracting and keeping them happy. Some are motivated by money, some by opportunity for advancement. These days, many are drawn to firms that offer them a balance between their work and family. Some, like Roane, want a chance to fight what they consider injustice. He makes a good living but takes pride in helping people get the money he says they need to rebuild their lives. That can be an uphill fight. He found out the hard way.

After graduating from UNC Greensboro in 1992 with a bachelor’s in political science, he was drifting along as a bartender by night and running a one-man business cleaning hotel carpets by day. In June 1995, a drunken driver ran a red light in Raleigh, slamming into the car in which Roane was riding. The impact broke his neck, which had to be held in place three months by a halo brace bolted into his skull. That’s what caused the scars.

After the drunken driver’s insurance company balked at paying for Roane’s care, he turned to his own insurer. It insisted it didn’t have to pay because, according to its records, he was 65 and should be on Medicare. After Roane convinced the company the records were wrong, it argued he should have gotten preauthorization before going to the hospital. Angry and frustrated, Roane dug through court records until he found a lawsuit filed by an attorney representing a client who’d had a similar experience. Using it as a guide, he drafted his own, then sent it to the insurance companies. They paid, but not before Roane had lost his business and doctors had threatened to quit treating him.

“I got so angry,” he recalls, “I decided to go to law school.” He graduated from Wake Forest’s in 1999. Now 37, he’s chief litigator for Crumley & Associates in High Point, with two lawyers and five paralegals reporting to him. The office is one of 10 operated by Crumley, the largest personal-injury practice in the state, with about 25 lawyers. Since joining the firm four years ago, after a stint at another one, Roane has won all 15 of his cases that have gone to a jury.

His financial reward comes from a compensation package that’s about 75% fixed salary and 25% contingency fees. He says the amount is similar to that of associates — lawyers who have not made partner — at major firms at the same point in their careers. Average compensation for an associate in his sixth year at a large firm in North Carolina is about $143,000, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Legal Career Professionals.

Considering his experience, that’s not much more than what some of the state’s biggest firms pay recent graduates. Charlotte-based Kennedy Covington Lobdell & Hickman, which has 208 lawyers, hired about 10 entry-levels and about 20 laterals in 2006, says Eugene Pridgen, co-managing partner. “In 2000, when you had the tech bubble, that dramatically increased entry-level pay, and it rippled across the country. Ours jumped from $72,000 to $100,000.” It stagnated until 2006, then jumped 15% to $115,000. Raises were more modest — about 5% — at smaller firms, according to NALP. Statewide except for Charlotte, the average entry-level pay was $88,250, though many firms, especially larger ones, paid signing bonuses of $10,000 to $15,000.

Competition and such pay packages have senior partners sweating the possible loss of prized hires to “the three-year itch,” the time young lawyers are more likely to leave the firms that hired them out of law school. “The first year or two, the young lawyer is working, gathering experience,” says Bill Mayberry, hiring partner of Helms Mulliss & Wicker, which has some 120 lawyers in Charlotte, Raleigh and Wilmington. It hired six recent graduates and about 10 laterals in 2006. “After the second or third year, they might decide law isn’t the job for them. Or if they stay, they might move to another firm.” Firms also lose young lawyers to business clients, who hire them as staff counsel.

“If you look at the numbers of top graduates, that has remained roughly the same, but demand from the biggest firms has grown for the last 20 years,” says Bruce Elvin, associate dean and director of the Career and Professional Development Center at Duke University’s law school in Durham. Duke typically ranks among the nation’s top 10 law schools, and Elvin says virtually all 220 of its 2006 graduates had jobs waiting before they turned their tassels. The situation is similar at other schools, including UNC Chapel Hill. Of the 228 members of the class of 2005, 99% were employed when surveyed nine months after graduating. Reflecting the state’s growing appetite for sharp young lawyers, nearly 60% worked for North Carolina firms. The North Carolina lawyer population — now nearly 17,900 — is growing 3% a year. “It’s a reflection of our robust economy and quality of life,” says Allan Head, executive director of the North Carolina Bar Association, a professional organization for lawyers. “The bar in other states isn’t growing like that.”

Not only are the brightest graduates sought, but out-of-state lawyers move here without jobs, he says, attracted by lifestyles less pressurized than in bigger cities elsewhere. The forces of supply and demand are reshaping the academic landscape. Five law schools — at Duke, Wake Forest, UNC, Campbell and N.C. Central — graduated about 830 in 2006. Elon University opened a law school last year, as did the for-profit Charlotte School of Law. Their combined enrollments will swell to about 400 students when they add second- and third-year classes.

Competition for top talent is fierce. "Demand from the biggest firms has grown for the last 20 years."

Hiring and retention are the keys to building practices, but the partners in charge of hiring say the playing field is shifting as fast as they adjust their strategies. The players’ values are changing. What it took to land and keep happy an earlier generation of young lawyers doesn’t necessarily work today. The spectrum of legal specialties attracts different kinds of lawyers.

Hiring and retention are the keys to building practices, but the partners in charge of hiring say the playing field is shifting as fast as they adjust their strategies. The players’ values are changing. What it took to land and keep happy an earlier generation of young lawyers doesn’t necessarily work today. The spectrum of legal specialties attracts different kinds of lawyers.

Members of the Legal Elite’s under-40 list include defense attorneys representing murderers, business lawyers in skyscrapers poring over bank documents and government prosecutors putting away drug dealers. Most business lawyers, recruiters say, come from a few top schools in the Southeast: Duke, UNC, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Washington and Lee. Few firms recruit at Ivy League schools — the returns don’t justify the expense.

In Charlotte, second-year associate lawyers saw their pay jump to an average of $121,667 in 2006 and rise to about $164,000 for those in their seventh year. NALP officials say the figures would be similar in Raleigh and Greensboro. Kennedy Covington’s pay structure is typical. “We have a fixed salary the first three years,” Pridgen says. “It’s a long process to train a young lawyer, and it’s hard to see a difference then. Beyond that time, compensation becomes merit-based.” Large firms typically offer partnerships — ownership in the firm — after about seven years.

Salaries might seem high when compared with other jobs, but there’s a catch. With few grants or scholarships available to offset the cost of law school, a graduate, on average, ends up about $90,000 in debt, Elvin says. And don’t believe the urban legends of law firms passing out keys to condominiums, country-club memberships and expensive sports cars to lure bright prospects. “This isn’t college basketball,” he quips. Instead, some firms promise a good balance of personal life and work. It’s less sexy than a sports car, but to some on the young lawyers list, it has become as important as money. “Our generation is much more conscious of things other than working for one company for the rest of their lives. We’re very mobile — if one firm doesn’t have it the way we want it, we’re quick to leave,” says Candice Sylvette Wooten, 30, a civil litigator in the Winston-Salem office of Atlanta-based Constangy, Brooks & Smith. She came to the firm in 2003 after spending her first two years out of UNC with Winston-Salem-based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice.

Most firms now tout family-friendliness in recruiting packages, but finding that balance still can be hard. The traditional 40-hour workweek, less two weeks’ vacation, adds up to 2,000 hours a year. At some firms, young lawyers say they bill clients for up to 2,300 hours a year — which, combined with nonbillable hours, required more than 60 hours a week. “At that level,” a partner in one large firm says, “you’ve got no life left.” Some young lawyers say the quest for billable hours is self-imposed, a way to distinguish themselves. Kearns Davis, now a federal prose-cutor in Greensboro, worked for a firm that he says didn’t stress billable hours. “Regardless, there’s always the sense that how hard I’m working is being watched and how hard I’m working is measured by how many hours go down on that sheet.” He consistently billed more than 2,000 hours a year.

Some do find a way to balance work and home. Michael V. Lee, 37, grew up in Dunn dreaming of fighting stirring courtroom battles, but the 1997 Wake Forest law graduate drifted into real-estate work and became in-house counsel for a developer. He quit to open Atlanta-based Smith Moore’s three-lawyer Wilmington office in 2005 after noting a clause in the company’s core-values statement promising balance.

“If it’s just you and maybe one other, during busy times you’re going to find yourself underwater busy all the time,” he says. “You wind up being a great lawyer but a horrible husband and father or a great husband and father but a horrible lawyer.”

"We're very mobile – if one firm doesn't have it the way we want it, we're quick to leave."

Smaller firms in particular struggle with the concept, but their lawyers say they find — and offer recruits — other rewards. Noell P. Tin’s goals are different from Lee’s. Originally from Ohio, he’s managing partner of the Charlotte firm of Tin Fulton Greene & Owen. It recently lost two of its eight lawyers but was hiring replacements. Tin, 38, estimates he works 50 hours a week. But his small practice gives him more time in the courtroom and a shot at high-profile cases.

He practices criminal law. Tin defended David Ghantt, convicted of stealing $17 million in 1997 from Loomis, Fargo & Co. in Charlotte, the state’s biggest heist. Recently, he engineered the release of a Union County man who spent 15 years in jail after being wrongly convicted of molesting children. “I’m not sure I would have thrived in the environment of a lot of big firms. I’m a trial lawyer. I like fighting for the underdog. I make my best contributions to the legal system in an advocacy role. I enjoy that.”

More than pay, perks or the prospects of promotion, circumstances propelled the careers of some of the 41 young lawyers on the list. When hijacked jetliners brought down the World Trade Center towers in 2001, Kearns Davis’ first child was 3 months old. A 1995 UNC law graduate, he was on the fast track, already a partner in the Greensboro office of Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard, specializing in business law. Before joining the firm, he had spent a year as a law clerk for a federal judge, a plum assignment worth a bonus at many firms.

But as the smoke from the twin towers cleared, he began questioning his future. “The combination of becoming a father and wanting to serve the country influenced my thinking. I began thinking about becoming a federal prosecutor.” He joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Greensboro in spring 2003. He wasn’t the only hot young lawyer who had second thoughts.

Joshua Bryan Royster grew up in Mount Airy, where his father and twin brother practice criminal law. After graduating from UNC law school in 2002, he joined Raleigh-based Maupin Taylor, one of the state’s oldest firms. Like Davis, he was pleased with his job, was paid well — more than $100,000 a year — and had a bright future. But memories of 9/11 nagged him. When an assistant U.S. attorney’s job in Raleigh became vacant in March 2005, he took a $30,000 pay cut to take it.

Neither regrets his choice. “I knew when I accepted this job I wasn’t going to get rich as a government lawyer,” Royster says. “But I’m representing the greatest client in the world.” Adds Davis: “The practice of civil and commercial law is important, but it’s more difficult for a lawyer to see the societal benefits of his own contribution. As a government lawyer, I’m making decisions that directly affect the lives of the victims of crime.”Still, even idealists harbor self-serving reasons. “In big firms, only a small number of cases go to trial,” Davis says. “I’d made partner, but I realized that I enjoyed trying cases and I was never going to be as good at it as I wanted to be unless I did it more often. Prosecutors try cases all the time.” They get variety, too. In his Greensboro office, Davis scans his case board. He’s juggling fraud, drug, firearms and other violations of federal law. One is a bank robbery. “It gives me the opportunity to be a jack of all trades.”

In Crumley & Associates’ High Point office, Roane laughs. He realizes, he says, that the image of trial lawyers has been battered by business groups and many politicians. His father is a former cop living in Cherryville, near Gastonia,and his mother retired from a career as a schoolteacher. “Even my own family gives me a hard time.”

But he unfolds a copy of the Lexington Dispatch, the top of its front page a banner headline about a Davidson County jury awarding his clients, the family of a nursing-home resident, $480,000 after finding that the 83-year-old Alzheimer’s disease patient had nearly starved and suffered life-threatening bedsores due to neglect in the home. The nursing home’s insurer had tried to force the family to settle for $38,000. Jury awards, he says, usually average about four times the best offer defendants’ attorneys make for out-of-court settlements, but the best trial lawyers know how to work opponents as well as they know how to work a jury. Roane settled the case of the child in the car wreck for an undisclosed sum. The faux jury had awarded $1.8 million in the mock trial.

He takes a wallet-sized photo from the top desk drawer. Instead of a pile of tangled metal, it shows a smiling girl of about 9, with pigtails and wearing a white dress. Every year since the settlement, her family sends him a picture. “Do I have a good job or what?”