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Going 20 For 20

Seven perennial Super Lawyers listees on the last two decades of life and law

Photo by Stan Kaady

Published in 2023 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Knopper on February 8, 2023


When Georgia Super Lawyers magazine was first published in 2004, Allegra Lawrence-Hardy was an associate hoping to make partner at a large firm; today, she’s an election-law specialist, and the recent chair for Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign, who runs a firm so diverse, she says, “we look like an ad for United Colors of Benetton.”

And in between? She, and we, experienced a global financial meltdown, a worldwide pandemic, and a revolutionary wave of technology and social media that both simplified lives and made everything infinitely more complicated.

“For anyone who grew up and went to law school pre-Shelby in Georgia, you would not have imagined [voting rights] work would be necessary,” says Lawrence-Hardy. “But with the erosion of protections post-Shelby, it’s all back on the table.”

To mark our anniversary, we sat down with seven attorneys who have made the Georgia list for 20 straight years, to talk over the changes in life and law.

The Changes

Melissa P. Walker; Melissa P. Walker, P.C.; Estate Planning: I was chair of the fiduciary section of the state Bar, working part-time with my law partner—we had our own small firm. And I was a mom. Since my former partner retired five years ago, I’ve been sharing space with another attorney. We have a nice niche practice and I’m able to make my own schedule.

Tony Cochran; Smith, Gambrell Russell; Business Litigation: I was in a smaller firm of about 10 lawyers and essentially doing the same thing I’m doing today.

Steve LaBriola; Fellows LaBriola LLP; Business Litigation, Catastrophic Personal Injury: The matters I’m handling now are typically of a higher dollar value.

Allegra Lawrence-Hardy; Lawrence & Bundy; Employment & Labor: I was at Sutherland. At the time, I just hoped I would be made partner. There were nine candidates up for partner—eight guys and me. I became a partner and chaired the employment and complex litigation team and was [eventually] on the executive committee.

Laurie Webb Daniel; Webb Daniel Friedlander; Appellate: At Holland & Knight, in 1994, I merged in as a partner. All of a sudden, I was in a firm with rapid growth, mostly through bringing on smaller firms. In 2022, it occurred to me, in the modern practice of law, certain niche practices actually can do better on their own. They can offer the clients higher value, more consistent attention, support and staffing and reduced overhead. I’m seeing that with appellate. I don’t need to fund a large deposition conference room.

Dwight L. Thomas; The Law Offices of Dwight L. Thomas; Criminal Defense: Around 2002, I was involved in death penalty work in DeKalb County involving a young man, Bautista Ramirez, who’d been convicted of killing a Doraville police officer during a confrontation. He was found not guilty of malice murder, guilty of felony murder, and the jury recommended life with the possibility of parole. In the same era, I was also involved in a high-profile case called the Gold Club racketeering case. It involved alleged Mafia payoffs, police protection, and some very—I would say—“interesting” characters. That trial lasted four months and there were seven defendants. As far as I know, it’s probably the longest trial in the state of Georgia in which a defense lawyer got a verdict in their favor.

John L. North; Hill, Kertscher & Wharton; Intellectual Property Litigation: It was my goal to be one of the preeminent IP groups in town. We [at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan] were on full-scale growth, in prosecution and litigation, with positive clients and opportunities across the country.

The Global Financial Meltdown

North: Everything was going full bore until we hit 2008-2009. The economics required us to start downsizing. We had to pull back to a tighter group of attorneys.

LaBriola: The economic fallout was so across-the-board, so substantial, that you had companies reaching out on clients where they were owed a significant sum of money, and they said, “If you sue us, we will file for bankruptcy; but if you enter a tolling agreement, we’ll see if we can weather the storm and work out some sort of resolution.” Business litigation really had a pause during that period. Of course, the folks who were doing bankruptcy work, their business picked up substantially.

Walker: People are going to need your services regardless of what the economy is. People die and we have to administer their estates. I didn’t register a big drop in my income or my level of business because of the recession.

The Technology

Cochran: You are required now to have an IT expert. The volume of material that’s produced today is massive. You’re talking [per case] in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of documents—and millions of pages.

LaBriola: Google Drive will store and save every draft that was ever done. So you will find documents and iterations on emails and key documents. No attorney can review every single document in a large case. You end up having 40 devices, including cellphones and iPads.

Cochran: If you have a high-profile case, you have to be very aware of all the media coverage—including Twitter posts. If you’re going to pick a jury: What have those potential jurors been reading? What have they been hearing?

Walker: A big topic of conversation is robots replacing lawyers with discovery and things like that. But a robot is not going to hold a client’s hand in probate court.

Lawrence-Hardy: Nobody’s still talking about e-discovery. We all figured it out and we’re all on board and now we’re done talking about it. But we’re still cracking our heads with diversity and inclusion.

The Big Cases

LaBriola: A gentleman was leaving work and a tractor-trailer truck was trying to make a left-hand turn pulling out of heavy traffic, and the person under-rode the trailer and instantly became a quadriplegic. I ended up utilizing a Georgia Tech physics professor to calculate the speed of his vehicle, which was caught in two frames passing the rear window of the tractor-trailer truck on the dash-cam. The defense was that he was speeding. We were able to show pretty conclusively that he was not. We had extensive accident reconstruction done on the case, depositions all over the country and statisticians. But so much of that case came down to being able to do calculations of speed based upon two video frames. It settled on the Friday before trial, in 2019.

Cochran: I represented this law firm when the owner of a large, distinctive building downtown was luring another tenant into the building and promised they could put these huge, illuminated signs on the top. But the lease said the owner could not change the external appearance of the building without Smith Gambrell Russell’s prior approval, and Smith Gambrell objected, saying, “No, they’re going to change the external appearance of the building.” I interviewed the original architect of the building. He’s retired. This particular building has distinct architectural features—its top is shaped not like a pyramid but a ziggurat. The architect got so excited talking about the theory of the architecture and how it was almost spiritual for him. The light pointed up to the heavens. When he found out they were going to put these big signs at the top, it just offended his sense of aesthetics. We tried that case. The signs did not go up.

Thomas: I can’t talk a whole lot [about President Trump, a current client]. What I can tell you is the president reached out to me and we had some very productive conversations and my services were engaged. I can say he is an interesting client. A very interesting client. And I’ve had a very good attorney-client relationship with him. I’ve represented Republicans and Democrats. I don’t let my politics get involved with my defense representation.

Lawrence-Hardy: I’ve had incredible pro bono opportunities. A family came in and said, “We have a child, she wears dresses, but she has a boy’s name, and when she broke her arm and went to the emergency room, it was a problem.” What I said to the family is, “This isn’t really my area of specialty, and at some point you’re going to have some really complicated legal challenges, and you’re probably going to have to pay somebody. But I know how to get a name changed.” So we went to court and did it. The hug she gave me was worth much more than any case I can think of.

Walker: I got involved in a case that involved the loss of rights by grandchildren. A man created an irrevocable trust, and [the grandchildren] had been adopted away. The mother’s rights had been terminated. And the question was, “Did these grandchildren who were adopted away continue to be beneficiaries of this trust or not?” It got appealed up to the Georgia Supreme Court. I had to make my oral argument. First, I had to write the brief, which I didn’t know anything about. I had to scramble around and get a friend to tell me how to do that. At the time, it had to be in this special paper cover. And I didn’t know anything about litigation. Somehow, I made my way through it. They ruled the grandchildren who had been adopted away, per state law, dropped out of the trust. When I walked out, I thought, “I never, ever want to do that again.”

The Pandemic

Thomas: On March 14, 2020, I was doing a bond hearing down in Houston County on a racketeering case. Didn’t think I would get bond, but the judge granted bond. As soon as that hearing was over, I went to Daytona Bike Week [in Florida], because I’m a biker. That weekend, they shut Daytona down, shut the Bike Week down and shut the whole country down. Everything was like, “What’s next? Where do we go from here?”

North: We were in a business development set of meetings in London at the end of February 2020. People were starting to do the elbow-and-fist-bumping at the meeting and nobody knew it was going to be a serious thing. Then we got back into the U.S. before the borders were starting to shut, and we gave up business meetings in New York City to get back to Atlanta and our homes. A number of courts stopped. Traveling was restricted. People weren’t meeting in person. We were doing depositions by Zoom. A lot of lawyers say it’s very important to be in the same room with a witness, but it turned out Zoom works pretty well.

Cochran: A lot of the dockets ground to a halt. There was a massive backlog. The criminal cases have to go before the civil cases.

Walker: We had a huge backlog of people wanting to sign their documents and make sure their affairs were in order if the worst happened. We went back in person with masks. In-person meetings are essential for document execution.

LaBriola: During COVID, we jumped ahead by at least a decade, because courts were forced to do it. As soon as the judges realized they could hold hearings electronically, sitting in their kitchen, but didn’t need to have the lawyers there, it was a great benefit for the clients. You didn’t have to go sit down and wait for a cattle call.

Thomas: It’s better on me physically, mentally, to not have to be running back and forth to courts as much as I used to. I’m 71 years old, man!

The Future

Lawrence-Hardy: We have been able to get the most extraordinary talent by allowing people to bring their whole selves to work—and are now practicing in an environment where people work hard to foster our authentic cognitive diversity. What does that look like? We have no hierarchy when it comes to the best ideas. When we have a tough problem to figure out, when we’ve got a new case we need a strategy on, when we’ve got an oral argument coming up and we’re trying to decide a fast way to present our argument, we get in a room and we push back and we push back.

Thomas: I’m beginning to see judges who are more creative when it comes to fashioning sentences that make sense. I was in Rockdale County two or three years ago, and I was representing a young man who had a controlled-substance record, nothing all that serious, and he’d been arrested again for selling a small amount of marijuana. The police officer saw the transaction. It was nickel bags and dime bags. I knew [the young man’s] dad. He’d made mistakes but wasn’t a bad kid. The DA was asking for one of those draconian-type outcomes—a couple years in prison. I began to talk to the judge. At that time, we were getting into legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes in the state of Georgia, and I said, “It’s ironic, you can be here, it’s illegal, and you got about 15 or 16 states where that same amount of marijuana is legal.” The judge agreed. He put him in one of those little detention centers where he could get some kind of structure in his life.

North: IP went from a boutique thing to a general part of overall litigation. It’s a strong area of the legal practice and I expect it to remain so.

Webb Daniel: About 20 years ago, you started seeing states having their own solicitor general’s offices—Florida, Georgia, Indiana—much like the U.S. solicitor general’s office. Lawyers in their 40s would get these new positions as solicitor general of such-and-such state, and have the opportunity to argue in the Supreme Court. That’s instant credibility. When they would leave that office, they would go into private practice. It’s helped drive the growth of appellate practice as a specialty.

Walker: I was looking to hang my shingle, and my friend, who’s also an independent trust and estates attorney, had this office condo with a vacant office. It was the perfect place. We have separate firms, but we share an assistant. It’s somebody to bounce things off. She’s a few years older. I tell her she can’t retire until I’m ready to retire and we can go out together.

Thomas: I’ve always told clients the law is unlike any other discipline. When it comes to mathematics, one and one is two today, it was two yesterday, it’ll be two tomorrow, it’ll be two forever. But what the law is one minute, it might be totally different the next. Even the views on possession of marijuana—you see President Biden has begun to normalize that whole conversation.

Lawrence-Hardy: I am happy to be living in a state that is turning blue. I’m excited to raise my children in a state where I fully expect the government to become more and more pro-voter over time—despite the present-day challenges. … You can probably tell I am an optimist by nature.

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