Marshall Wall first joined Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog as a summer clerk in 1998. In January, he stepped up to take on the role of managing partner of the firm, overseeing approximately 80 lawyers across three offices. He succeeds co-founder, Dan Hartzog, who remains active in the firm as of counsel and a resource for Wall.
He sat down with Attorney at Law Magazine North Carolina Triangle publisher, Bob Friedman, to discuss his plans for the future of the firm.
AALM: You have spent your more than 16-year career at Cranfill. Staying at one firm that long is highly unusual.
Wall: The law is stressful and hard work but what’s going on at home is even more important. What appealed to me about the firm is that it has always believed that the work will get done, you need to be able to see your kid’s ball game.
Six years ago, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were scared. We had two young sons. I went in to see Dan and he told me, “Just go do what you need to do. Don’t worry about work. How can we help?” That meant a lot to me. I’m happy to say the cancer was caught early and she is doing great.
AALM: How would you describe yourself?
Wall: I think that I’m fairly low key. We are a pretty low key firm. I want to be wellrespected but I don’t need to be patted on the back. I don’t need to have my name in the newspaper or be on the cover of a magazine – all evidence to the contrary.
AALM: What do you want your legacy to be here at the firm?
Wall: I want people to see Cranfill as a group of lawyers who are well respected and ethical. I believe that your word is your bond and expect our lawyers to live up to that every day.
AALM: Tell us about the firm values established by Hartzog and how you will carry them forward.
Wall: Dan is remarkable as a leader because he is so busy but he always had time for you. He made it a priority that the older and more experienced attorneys have time for the younger folks. They had an open door policy. We collectively have a lot of respect for each other, lawyers and staff. We recognize that all of us are important here and we do a good job living that day in and day out. We don’t have a lot of jerks here (laughs). We have a very collegial group of people.
AALM: The Research Triangle is competing with Boston, Silicon Valley and Austin among other regions in the high tech sector. How are you tailoring the firm to that growing segment?
Wall: We’re working to make our law firm more attractive to small and mid-size startup businesses to be able to offer them value as they are getting started in their business and help support them as they grow in their early stage investments. It’s a recognition that some of the things we have done for years may be less relevant as there is less heavy industry and more of a knowledge-based economy here.
AALM: If I could use a baseball analogy, your firm has traditionally recruited from your farm system rather than high-priced free agents. Will that continue?
Wall: When the economy was down a few years back, we slowed our hiring of new folks out of law school and I think we’ve regretted that ever since. We didn’t want to add somebody and then realize we didn’t need them. We’ve now got a little bit of a gap, so we’re regularly recruiting new folks out of school. Most of them clerk for us before coming on board.
While we do have laterals and look at those opportunities, we feel bringing on new lawyers is important for the firm. We want them to start with us, build their career and we hope they stay here.
AALM: What are your growth plans for the firm?
Wall: We are going to broaden our practice areas as we go forward. We have started to do more in areas beyond our core litigation practice. I expect to see us continue to grow those areas. We do some business transactional and intellectual property work, for example, and while those will probably never be our largest areas of practice, I do think you will see those areas continue to expand.
I want to see us grow the firm and I want it to be smart growth. I’m not overly concerned with head count. I’m more concerned with making sure we have good, quality lawyers doing good, quality work. Whether it’s 75 or 100, I want to see us continue to grow our offerings to our clients.
We’ve done a good job with that in the last few years and that’s really the direction you’ll see us go in. That’s a big priority.
AALM: What changes do you see over the next five-10 years for the firm?
Wall: I think one issue is the prospect of non-attorney ownership of law firms. I don’t know how much that will affect our firm particularly, I think the legal industry as a whole will be impacted. That’s going to be very interesting because of what you see happening in other countries.
The other issue is competition from non lawyers and how we address those issues. With the litigation practice, it’s probably not as much of an issue. I think there are a lot of people who look at the legal market and think there’s some opportunity for businesses to come in as a non-lawyer and provide some part of those services. So unbundling and being able to do some pieces of that and save clients money and still provide a good service. I think the lawyers have got to decide how we’re going to handle that and I don’t think throwing up road blocks to Legal Zoom and folks like that is necessarily what’s going to save the day for lawyers. I think we’ve got to show the value of our services and make sure that it truly has value.
AALM: Under Hartzog’s leadership, the firm was an early adopter of new technology. Will that trend continue?
Wall: Absolutely. We are working on trying to move our practice toward being paperless. We’ve had a big upgrade in our billing and accounting soft ware over the last year. We are still phasing in pieces of it but I think it’s going to be a real plus for us. Technology is important in so many areas of our life but in this law firm it’s going to have to be front and center to differentiate ourselves and show our clients we are giving them good value.
AALM: Whenever there is a change in leadership, clients get a little nervous. How are you addressing this?
Wall: I’ve tried not to make any dramatic changes. I’ve tried to keep in place the things that Dan has done related to the firm and the way that we handle cases, the way that we train lawyers, the way that we deal with each other within these walls. Dan is still practicing law here full time and he is able to be more engaged with clients than he has been.
I think our clients recognize that the lawyer they have been dealing with is still here and doing the same things.
AALM: What is Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog’s brand now and going forward?
Wall: Our reputation is excellent, in my view, and it’s something we have worked all these years to build up and work every day to maintain. We teach new folks when they come here that the judge has got to trust what you say. The opposing lawyers have to be able to trust what you say. Dan used to always say, “We’re firm but we’re fair.”
I was raised mostly by my mother who was a school teacher for many years. She is honorable, humble, hardworking and strict. She didn’t accept anything less than complete integrity. I learned all of that and much more from her. I want people to think of me as a stand-up guy and a solid citizen. I have the same goals for the firm.