The leadership of Ward and Smith P.A. faced a big decision, one that could impact the Triangle’s view of the firm. Did they want the cover photo for this issue to be formal or informal? The unanimous choice was informal. “We’ve always been different than the mahogany desk and corner office law firm,” said Ward and Smith co-managing director Brad Evans.
That’s the message the firm wants to communicate to clients, and to potential lateral attorneys it hopes to recruit during its current expansion mode.
The New Bern-based firm has traditionally focused on eastern North Carolina, with offices in Greenville and Wilmington. But between its growing Triangle location and its office in Asheville, Ward and Smith has a statewide reach.
“We think a lot of companies outside North Carolina prefer to deal with a single firm in the state, and since we cover the entire state, it’s worked out well for us,” observed Evans.
“We had a consultant do a market study of the Triangle related to growth potential. Their recommendations were right in our sweet spot – the needs of closely held businesses and the construction industry,” said co-managing director Ken Wooten.
“In the commercial sector, local growth has been impressive, and it has continued at a level that is sustainable,” said new Ward and Smith real estate attorney Jake Parrott. He joined the firm in 2016, and has been pleased with his reception. “I’ve found a true team environment, an abundance of professionalism, and a level of warmth and collegiality that exceeded all my expectations.”
New Office Building
To accommodate the firm’s growth, ground will soon be broken for a 31,000-squarefoot office in a new Highwoods building in Raleigh.The firm’s current office occupies 26,000 square feet.The move is slated for mid-2018.
“The new office is a work in progress. We are brainstorming what the needs will be for a 21st century law firm. We think those changes will be fairly dramatic as there will be substantial differences in technology as well as flexible space for collaboration,” said Evans.
“As we have been designing the new space, cybersecurity is at the front of our minds,” said Deana Labriola, business attorney and firm market leader in Raleigh. “To meet our client’s needs, we need to provide evidence of a certain level of cybersecurity. We are proactively managing those needs, and planning for the future.”
Ward and Smith currently has 96 attorneys at its five offices statewide. Currently, the Raleigh office has 25 attorneys.The new offices will be able to accommodate 50 attorneys, some of whom have already been hired.
“We’re focusing on the health care, real estate and construction industries while adding business, tax and securities bench strength,” said Labriola.
Intellectual property represents a significant amount of the value of some closely held companies in the Triangle and across the state. Accordingly, Ward and Smith recently added four intellectual property and patent attorneys from Raleigh-based firm Myers Bigel.
“We are very intentional in our recruiting to make sure we have right attorneys to cover the gamut of IP needs across the state,” said Labriola. “To have a full-service intellectual properties group, we cover life sciences, pharma, electrical, mechanical and software as well as patent, copyright and trademark.”
“Our clients don’t have $150,000 to file on every patent, trademark or copyright,” said Liz Stanek, one of the new patent attorneys. “We have to sit down with the client at the beginning and ask what exactly is their plan. Do they want to get bought? Do they want to grow into a large company? Do they want to do an IPO? We have to protect the intellectual property that moves them toward their goal.”
Regulators Go Where the Business Is
White-collar criminal defense is another growing area. The focus will be on defending people who may have breached state or federal regulations, or who are facing any sort of governmental investigation.
“North Carolina is now the ninth most populous state in the country. As the economy grows, the regulators go where the businesses are.There has been a radical expansion over the last 20 years of the government regulating and prosecuting in areas it has not historically such as economic crimes, environmental crimes and health care offenses,” said Wes Camden, a recent lateral hire and leader of the firm’s white-collar defense practice group.
“With the increased regulatory environment, even businesses like hog farmers in eastern North Carolina can get into trouble from an environmental stand point,” said Wooten.
“This impacts heavily regulated industries like agriculture, banking or health care. Even when there is not a direct criminal prosecution, these people are regularly investigated and subpoenaed, and have to worry about a lot of regulations,” added Camden.
Avoiding Internal Strife
During the process of recruiting new attorneys, the firm is stressing its own brand of teamwork.
The leadership at the firm said it has created esprit de corps by removing the greatest obstacle to teamwork –fighting over originations.
“We have a teamwork approach that avoids conflicts between attorneys over credits when attorneys share a client.That prevents the incentive for an attorney to keep a client and do all the work themselves, even though they may not be the best person in the firm to handle a matter,” said Wooten. “We have an aversion to self-promotion.”
“The way that we are structured prevents the internal strife and selfish competition,” said Evans. “We’re looking for people who fit into the culture of rowing in the same direction.”
The firm intentionally and aggressively fosters collaboration across practices and offices.
“We have a monthly client development meeting where, for instance, a new practice area can introduce themselves and share what they can provide to the clients of other lawyers at the firm,” said Labriola.
“We have interdisciplinary groups by industry. For example, the construction practice group would include a construction litigator and a transactions lawyer and an employment lawyer,” said Wooten.
“We have staff to specifically handle integration of new laterals,” said Wooten. “There are a thousand issues about settling into a new firm, and we try to be flexible during the initial stages so that they feel comfortable, and they get to their normal productivity as quickly as possible.”
Evans said, “A big focus of the firm is bringing in additional lateral attorneys. All the attorneys in our cover photo, except for the three of us in the front, have joined our Raleigh office in the past year.”
“But we’ve never been about growth for growth’s sake,” adds Wooten. “It comes about naturally as a result of having satisfied clients who refer other clients to us. And we couldn’t be happier about that.”