Sam Woodhouse is not a millennial, but his law practice has benefited from an unwitting stroke of 21st century genius: Google the words “Atlanta local counsel,” and his three-lawyer shop pops up at the top of the list.
“I don’t know how that happened,” says Woodhouse, 50, in his downtown Atlanta office. He guesses that simply making “local counsel assistance” a separate subject on his firm website led to the calls he now gets from lawyers around the country seeking help on an Atlanta case.
Woodhouse estimates that between 30-35 percent of his business comes from local counsel work, which started when he opened up his practice after 14 years with Cozen O’Connor—seven in Philadelphia and seven in Atlanta, where he served a stint as local managing partner.
To be sure, much of Woodhouse’s local counsel work comes through traditional referrals, just as for other lawyers around the area who supplement their practices by assisting out-of-town lawyers.
Robert Ingram of 80-lawyer Moore Ingram Johnson & Steele says he frequently serves as local counsel in Marietta. He’s worked with Kirkland & Ellis lawyers from Chicago to defend General Motors from more than a dozen suits over ignition switch problems, and he also works with Atlanta firms.
“They know I’m right across the street” from the Cobb County Courthouse, Ingram says, but his help goes beyond convenience.
“Rightly or wrongly,” he says, counsel that ask him to be local counsel believe “the judges know me and I have credibility with them.”
“I don’t attempt to disabuse them of that,” he quips.
His knowledge of the local courts ranges from the minute—knowing what kind of case citations judges like to see in briefs, and which ones respond well to PowerPoint presentations—to more general notions. He recalls urging his co-counsel from out of town not to fire off a motion during a discovery dispute. “This judge does not like fighting,” he recalls telling them, suggesting they instead make another attempt to resolve the problem and document their efforts.
Ingram’s local counsel practice “has evolved over time,” helped by his work on the State Bar Board of Governors and as president of the State Bar, so lawyers from around the state got to know him.
Chris Parker of 130-lawyer Miller & Martin, a firm with offices in Atlanta and elsewhere in the Southeast, said serving as local counsel “is not necessarily something we market—it just happens.”
The referrals can come from clients, former adversaries and professional associations. As a litigator with cases around the country, he said he’s on both the selling and buying end of local counsel services.
When Miller & Martin serves as local counsel, he said it always starts with the expectation that the firm will have a “meaningful role” in the case at hand—although that doesn’t mean a “controlling” role.
The work can include what he calls “concierge” services—helping out-of-town counsel with office space for depositions and making introductions in the local courthouse. “It depends on the case and the judge,” Parker said.
On the more substantive side, he said, it can include reviewing and editing briefs to stay within local customs, or a case might have a Georgia state law claim with which the out-of-town firm isn’t familiar.
He said local counsel engagements occur in mergers and acquisitions as well.
Woodhouse says his local work ranges in complexity. “ Sometimes I’m a drop box, and sometimes I’m co-counsel,” he says.
Wherever on that spectrum he is, Woodhouse says his understanding of local rules and local judges can help in explaining “these unwritten rules in Georgia.”
In many states outside of Georgia, he says, lawsuit defendants can file a motion to dismiss in lieu of an answer to the suit. But in Georgia, an answer to the suit must be filed, even if the defendant also immediately asks for a dismissal.
Woodhouse thinks coming from a big firm but working now as a small shop appeals to some out-of-town firms, because he understands their needs without their worrying “about me stealing their client.”
Commentators have suggested that local counsel who believe their roles are limited can expose themselves to risk if they merely sign on to pleadings but don’t pay attention to details that can lead to malpractice claims or sanctions.
Woodhouse says he doesn’t ask for special engagement letters that limit his risk more than the referring counsel, because even when he’s acting merely as a drop box, “I understand I’m on the hook.”