THE WIN-WIN APPROACH

Little Rock bond attorney M. Jane Dickey prefers negotiating to arguing

Published in 2012 Mid-South Super Lawyers — December 2012

M. Jane Dickey says she was never much of a math teacher. Fresh from getting an undergraduate math-education degree in 1971, Dickey found herself teaching “unprepared and uninterested” students at a troubled high school where police were stationed to quell occasional violence.

“I took the LSAT out of desperation,” she says.

Forty years later, Dickey considers herself one of the luckiest people around. “I don’t mean to discount things like good health and a loving relationship,” she says, “but there’s nothing better than loving your work.” She’s now a bond attorney at Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.

Dickey found her way into this area of law by way of George Campbell, who practiced public finance at Rose. “Our firm was involved in single-family mortgage revenue bond issues in 1978,” Dickey says. “They are very complicated, and they took up all of George’s time and energy. So I began to shoulder most of his nonhousing-bond workload.

“Bond law is exceedingly satisfying, and it suits my personality. I get to work with the elected officials and public employees and the bureaucrats—for lack of a better word—for whom I have such great admiration. I don’t have to go to court, which I don’t like to do, anyway. I’m a much better negotiator and problem-solver than a persuader and arguer. I like to work toward a goal.”

She liked it well enough to stay put. “I’ve been at the same firm since 1977,” Dickey says. “I’ve been married to the same man for just one year short of that. I’ve lived in the same house for over 25 years. I do love change and I love creating new things, but I also love stability.”

Dickey also loves her hometown. A past president of the National Association of Bond Lawyers, she recently received the William F. Rector Memorial Award for Distinguished Civic Achievement from Fifty for the Future, a CEO leadership organization in central Arkansas. “I was absolutely thrilled about that,” Dickey says. “It’s for a career of civic involvement, and it means a lot to me.”

Besides the many deals she has brokered as a lawyer in Little Rock, her work as a volunteer has shaped her community. As chair of the local water board, Dickey presided over a fundamental change that she cites as her most lasting accomplishment. The merger of the public water systems of Little Rock and North Little Rock in 2001 was not unlike holding peace talks between squabbling nations.

At the time, Little Rock sold water to the city of North Little Rock, and it was an uncomfortable arrangement. “Every year there would be a rate increase,” Dickey says, “and every year there would be a skirmish over the price.”

When an independently commissioned report by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock made its recommendation, the earth shook in central Arkansas. “To my shock and horror—and to the shock and horror of many others—the recommendation was that the two systems merge,” Dickey says. “That had not been on my radar screen. I think I read that report three times in a 24-hour period—it was extremely well done. I suddenly realized that this was the only solution to our situation. I believed that a supply of plentiful, healthful drinking water was key to the economic success of our region.”

Both sides resisted. “North Little Rock likes to be in control—they’re a smaller city and they don’t like to be in the shadow of Little Rock,” she says. “They would also have to pay higher rates for a period of several years. Little Rock owned both local water reservoirs and both treatment plants, and this arrangement meant they would have to give those away to the water authority. They couldn’t do anything with them other than provide water, but it’s just viscerally difficult to give something away, especially something so valuable.”

But Dickey brought all her negotiating skills to bear. “I became a champion for this merger,” she says. “It required tremendous courage and risk for both cities, because they had to give up a degree of control. I still wonder how in the world we managed to accomplish it.” The results have had a huge impact, standardizing rates and making it possible to share costs for finding long-term sources of drinking water. The newly created utility, Central Arkansas Water, can now borrow money based on its large, stable customer base and the resultant high rating from credit agencies.

Although it was a volunteer effort, that successful problem-solving reflects the kind of work Dickey loves in her practice. “My work has a beginning, a middle and an end,” she says. “And at the end, there’s a water treatment plant or a newly paved street or a hospital wing: something physical. I can drive around the state and see something I’ve participated in financing.

“At the end of my projects, everybody wins,” she says. “Everyone walks away feeling good.”

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