Looking out from the glass-walled conference room near the front lobby of Page Scrantom Sprouse Tucker & Ford’s contemporary-styled offices, managing partner William Tucker explains the process in which the city of Columbus is partially opening up a dam in the Chattahoochee River to allow more white-water to flow through, setting the stage for completion of the most challenging urban rapids course in the country.
Later, he walks down a hallway to show a collection of client letters framed and lining the walls of a conference room. Historians consider the letters valuable, he says, because of the hand-written corrections of the writer, who refused to allow his secretary to retype them for just a few minor changes. The signature: Franklin D. Roosevelt. The dates correspond to the time the president lived in nearby Warm Springs. The letters refer to real estate sales and other investment transactions.
Past, present and future seem to live together in the firm’s offices on the third floor of the building belonging to one of its biggest clients, Synovus Bank. Its roots go back more than a century. It’s the biggest firm in town, with 35 lawyers who specialize in corporate law, tax, estate planning and a broad variety of litigation.
And lately it’s been doing something that firms in larger cities might envy during the tough years of the recession. It’s growing. The firm added two new associates last year and plans to add three more 2013 law school graduates.
An unabashed supporter of his native city, Tucker postulates young lawyers seem to have an increasing interest in coming to Columbus. He supposes the trend is related to the recession and the rigors of big firm life in Atlanta.
"This is clearly a less stressful environment for young lawyers," Tucker says, noting that his firm and others in Columbus don’t have Atlanta’s expectations for new associates to bill so many hours. But, he adds, "The quality of work available to lawyers is equally good."
Supporting big firm work in Columbus are "significant historically wealth-based communities," he says.
Synovus, the national banking company that grew from Columbus Bank & Trust, is an example. Another is the Synovus affiliate TSYS. Also Aflac, the national insurance company. Coca-Cola has roots in Columbus.
"There’s a likelihood that someone can work in a meaningful way here," says Tucker. Page Scrantom provides a full array of legal services to corporate clients and individuals, and even some personal injury plaintiff’s litigation.
Aside from work, he says, "I think young people realize Columbus is a good place to live."
The Columbus legal community still has some movement from one firm to another or to new practices, says Tucker. "What you don’t see anymore is people leaving Columbus to practice elsewhere."
The other big firm
At the oldest and second-largest law firm in town, another lawyer tells the story of leaving a big Atlanta firm—then called Hansel & Post—to move to Columbus in 1994. Sitting at a conference table with antique chairs around it and an oversized glass bowl filled to the brim with chocolates, John Sheftall of Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild says than when his old friends ask what it’s like to work in his new town, he tells them this: "It’s the way the practice of law was meant to be."
Big firm life in Columbus is painted on a smaller canvas, without the splashy colors. The second-biggest firm in town has 18 lawyers. Its offices are on the fifth and sixth floors of a down-to-earth high-rise, the Corporate Center, with nine stories.
Like those at Atlanta firms, the attorneys do a range of corporate and government work, just on a smaller scale. Two of their biggest clients are the Muscogee County school system and waterworks.
They have enviable tax and estate clients that are part of the fabric of life in Columbus, high net worth individuals from the families that built the community’s big companies (think Callaway Gardens resort and other businesses).
Hatcher Stubbs and its ancestor firms have a 140-year lineage. The common thread, as Sheftall puts it: a "tradition of being involved in the community." As the firm has grown, "the collegiality has remained strong," Sheftall says. "The quality of life is great."
He has family roots in Columbus. But when they moved back from Atlanta, both he and his wife transplanted their legal careers and their children. Lucy Sheftall is now assistant city attorney in Columbus.
They found it easy to quickly get involved in their new city. They’re active in neighborhood revitalization and preservation. They find they know more people in the smaller city because they see the same folks at work and in the community.
The timing of the Sheftalls’ move coincided with the rise of specialization in Columbus firms—which came a good decade or so after Atlanta’s.
In prior years, the philosophy was that a good lawyer does everything, says Alan Rothschild, who, like Sheftall, is a wills and estates attorney. "They didn’t think there was a legal problem they couldn’t handle," Rothschild recalls. He remembers a colleague who’d never done bankruptcy work having to fill in for another attorney in a trial maybe 25 years ago. "He took home the Encyclopedia of Bankruptcy one weekend and came to court Monday morning as a bankruptcy lawyer."
Even when Sheftall came to Columbus 19 years ago, some older partners questioned how a probate lawyer could stay busy just doing work in one practice, Rothschild says. But what the firm found was that as its partners developed a greater expertise in one subject, they could export their services over a wider area.
Columbus firms didn’t experience the growth of Atlanta firms during the pre-recession years. But they also haven’t been hurt as much in the tough times.
"We’ve never had the benefit of the upside driven by explosive growth. As a result, we didn’t have as far to fall," Sheftall says. He describes the firm’s economic picture as "slow but steady growth—with aspirations for more."
The Columbus firms don’t have the financial structure that has come under pressure in other places.
"The firms here have never commanded the pricing of Atlanta firms, and never leveraged their associates in the same way—for better or worse," Sheftall says. That difference creates a double challenge. On the one hand, it’s hard to persuade older clients to pay increased rates. On the other, some potential clients resist the idea that they can get the same quality of legal work at lower rates in Columbus rather than going to Atlanta. "There’s a prejudice that if you’re not from out of town, you’re not an expert," Sheftall jokes.
Overall, the work has been rewarding, and there’s been plenty of it. But possibly Sheftall’s favorite part of big firm life in a smaller town is how the work fits into the community.
"You rub shoulders with the wealthiest and the most outstanding and famous and the most humble on a daily basis," Sheftall says. "Life is real here."