Thomas G. Wolfe, Managing Partner at Phillips Murrah law firm, was interviewed by Brenda Sapino Jeffreys for an article for Texas Lawyer on Law.com, giving insights on the Firm’s venture into the Texas legal market and on business strategies the Firm has found successful in Dallas.
Read more below:
What do you view as the two biggest opportunities for your firm, and what are the two biggest threats?
For Phillips Murrah, our biggest opportunity is easy: TEXAS. We opened our Dallas law firm about a year-and-a-half ago, and as a new entrant to the Texas legal market, we see virtually unlimited opportunities to gain clients, expand existing relationships and add top talent. Over the past 18 months, we have grown our Texas office from one full-time lawyer to five while increasing the quantity of work being handled for Texas-based companies more than tenfold. While much of that work is for new clients, we are also providing an expanding range of service to existing clients based in Texas and elsewhere.
The second opportunity for the firm is the ability to provide existing Oklahoma-based clients with niche services from Texas-based lawyers. In some cases, there are only a handful of Oklahoma lawyers in a niche practice while the pool of practitioners in Texas is much larger.
While Texas presents a huge opportunity, the size of the legal market and the number of competitors also serve as a threat. As a roughly 75-lawyer firm, we cannot chase every opportunity. We must remain focused and chose carefully.
Growth also presents a challenge to our firm culture, which has been a cornerstone for our success. As Phillips Murrah added, and then added to, a second office, we have worked diligently to include Oklahoma lawyers on teams serving Texas-based clients and vice versa. Since opening in Dallas, half of our Oklahoma lawyers have worked on relationships managed by a Texas lawyer while everyone in our Dallas office has worked on a relationship managed from our Oklahoma City headquarters. Fortunately, Oklahoma City is as close to Dallas as Austin and much closer than Houston.
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The legal market is so competitive now—what trends do you see, and has anything, including alternative service providers, altered your approach? Is your chief competition other mid-market firms, or is your firm competing against big firms for the same work?
The market is clearly stratifying. We spend most of our energy on work, and on seeking work, that we can handle with our breadth and depth of practices, and for which we are attractive from a value perspective with the advantage provided by lower overhead from our Oklahoma City base. As a result, we focus on “run the company” work for very large companies and handling both “run the company” and “bet the company” work for middle-market businesses.
From a Firm perspective, we see competition across the size-of-firm spectrum. We have won business from smaller firms based upon a combination of our full-service offerings and our reasonable rates. We have also won business from very large firms because we have experienced attorneys in a broad range of practice areas, much lower rates and a long-term relationship. At the same time, we have lost work to small firms that charge less or have great client relationships and to large firms that offer a broader range of practice and more depth despite much higher rates.
There is much debate around how law firms can foster the next generation of legal talent. What advantages and disadvantages do midsize firms have in attracting and retaining young lawyers, particularly millennials?
While members of our Firm share common goals and values as it relates to our work, our leadership recognizes that different generations may have different approaches. Regarding our young lawyers, we strive to make apparent from the outset that our Firm’s culture places high value on both personal congeniality and work-life balance. We recognize that practicing law is challenging and time-consuming work, so it is important to us to provide opportunities for our younger lawyers to develop as leaders, originators and contributors in the community while offering the flexibility to develop their particular interests outside of the office.
We also have a high percentage of women leaders at our Firm, which we believe is an important indicator to our younger lawyers that Phillips Murrah walks the walk when it comes to factors important to generations entering the workforce.
Does your firm employ any non-lawyer professionals in high-level positions (e.g. COO, business development officer, chief strategy officer, etc.)? If so, why is it advantageous to have a non-lawyer in that role? If not, have you considered hiring any?
Our Executive Director sits on the Firm’s Executive Committee and brings a prospective that is different than most attorneys. She is the one non-voting, non-elected member of the Executive Committee and a constant within the Executive Committee, so in addition to her perspective, she has the institutional knowledge that comes with that. The Firm’s CFO is an integral part of the Firm’s management, attends Board Meetings, and also presents a fresh and different perspective.
What would you say is the most innovative thing your firm has done recently, whether it be technology advancements, internal operations, how you work with clients, etc.?
Perhaps the most innovative thing we are doing lately is both technological and deals with good-old human nature. While we have really shored up our electronic defenses, now we’re working on strengthening our human defenses through conducting firm-wide internet security training and awareness exercises using a platform called KnowBe4. This platform allows us to simulate phishing attempts, and other ploys generally referred to as “social engineering,” in order to raise awareness of cyber threats within our Firm. No matter how high-tech the security technology is, it is still possible to break through those defenses by fooling people. This security awareness training plugs the holes that would otherwise exist due to lack of awareness of these threats. When people in our Firm recognize these cyber-threat attempts and know how to properly respond, it gives us an important additional level of security.
Does your firm have a succession plan in place? If so, what challenges do you face in trying to execute that plan? If you don’t currently have a plan, is it an issue your firm is thinking about?
The Firm is in the beginning stages of creating a succession plan. The Strategic Planning Committee, the Executive Committee and the Practice Group Leaders met with a consultant recently to get input for beginning that process. At the recommendation of the consultant, the Executive Committee intends to start with the upcoming individual year-end meetings for attorneys that are 58 years and older. We plan on tailoring the succession plans for each individual based on their practice, intended retirement dates and their clients.