Law Firms Find Uncertain Economy A Tough Judge

fromWPLN

Law firms have been adjusting to the economic downturn. Nashville's Bass Berry & Sims laid off more than 8 percent of its associates this year. The firm also is pushing trial work away from high-dollar senior partners down to associate attorneys with lower hourly billing rates.

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The economic downturn has not spared attorneys. Struggling law firms have merged and some have downsized. A firm in Nashville - Bass, Berry & Sims - is among those that have laid off lawyers this year. The firm is now training less experienced attorneys with cheaper billing rates to take on trial work. From member station WPLN, Blake Farmer reports.

BLAKE FARMER: For a young attorney, the hardest thing about going to court for the first time is that he can't let anyone know it's his first time.

Mr. MIKE DAGLEY (Attorney): You have to really act like you own the place. Well, how can you do that if you've never been there before?

FARMER: Mike Dagley is a partner at Bass, Berry & Sims and an experienced litigator. He's showing the firm's first-year associates how to at least look like they own the place. Dagley's experience allows him to charge clients more than twice the hourly billing rate of associates. Brian Iverson graduated from Pepperdine Law School in California last year and says he really wasn't trained to stand up in front of a jury.

Mr. BRIAN IVERSON (Attorney): Do you always comply with this policy?

Unidentified Man: Yes, we do.

FARMER: Iverson is examining a witness as part of the firm's new in-house litigation training program. On Friday afternoons, for six months, senior attorneys play judges, interns took the jury seats, and 16 associates like Iverson argued the case. It's a commercial dispute over who pays for half a million dollars of computer chips lost in the mail. Iverson takes a dramatic pause and turns on his heel.

Mr. IVERSON: And I'd like to talk to you about your assistant, Virginia Young.

FARMER: The entire exercise was videotaped so the firm's rookie litigators could critique themselves. Iverson says it's almost embarrassing to see how close he stood to the jury.

Mr. IVERSON: I didn't really feel that I was kind of impeding on their space when we were doing that, but then go back and watch the video and I'm right on top of them.

Mr. DAGLEY: In law school you really learn substantive areas of the law, like the law of contracts or the law of evidence. You don't learn how do you persuade people in a courtroom setting.

FARMER: Bass partner Mike Dagley says law school grads come to the firm without trial skills. The American Bar Association is midway through a three year review of its accreditation standards and could address the need for more litigation work. On-the-job training is getting harder because of a phenomenon known as the vanishing trial. Out-of-court resolutions have become the norm. Old school litigators like Dagley learned in the apprentice style by working under senior attorneys until they were ready to go it alone.

Can you tell me about your first trial? Do you remember it?

Mr. DAGLEY: It was in Dallas in 1983, and I was very inexperienced and very young.

FARMER: But Dagley says when younger, less experienced attorneys have some basic trial skills, they're the right choice for some.

Mr. DAGLEY: If you have smaller clients who have disputes with less at risk, then it makes more economic sense to put younger lawyers with lower billing rates on it.

FARMER: Bass, Berry & Sims would not identify clients of these young associates. The firm's not interested in advertising which companies are using unseasoned lawyers. Attorney instructor Henry Hecht of the Hecht Training Group says nothing can replace actual trial experience.

Mr. HENRY HECHT (Hecht Training Group): People talk about having your feet in the real fire as opposed to simulated training. It certainly can only go so far.

FARMER: Still, Hecht says simulations are sometimes the best option. The cost of taking a commercial dispute to trial can easily top a million dollars. Even clients looking for a discount want to win, so the question for them is whether saving thousands in legal fees is worth rolling the dice on a young lawyer who hasn't won before.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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