Smaller Can Be Better
For some lawyers, big firm life offers security. But for others, that's less important than independence and flexibility.
Published in 2008 Mid-South Rising Stars magazine
on November 10, 2008
Updated on April 18, 2009
Practicing a Happy Type of Law
J. Anthony Bradley, Bradley Law Firm
Early in J. Anthony Bradley’s career, an experienced lawyer at his firm told him: “If you don’t have your own clients, you’re not a real lawyer.”
Bradley—who received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in accounting from the University of Mississippi, then attended law school at Ole Miss and got his LL.M. in tax law at the University of Florida—took the message to heart. He struck out on his own in 2003, just five years after starting his career.
At the time, he was looking for greater client interaction. “As a young associate at a larger law firm you work on the same things over and over again,” he says. “It’s more research-driven, and you’re not spending as much time developing your own business and meeting your own clients.”
Today, alongside an administrative staff of four, Bradley concentrates on estate planning and probate, real estate, and business and corporate law from an office in East Memphis. He strives to develop lifelong relationships with his clients. “Because all of our practice areas are interrelated, we can often help people in multiple areas of their lives,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to deal with so many of the same people for years. Some of our clients have been with us from the beginning.”
Most of Bradley’s work comes through referrals—many of his clients come to him from financial advisers, CPAs, insurance agents, former clients and other attorneys. Others have seen him on his weekly “Ask the Attorney” segment on the Fox-13 morning news.
Life in a small practice is busy, but Bradley enjoys the work. “I like to say I practice a happy type of law,” he says. “People come to me at good times in their life—when they’re buying or selling a house, when they’re starting or acquiring a business. It’s different from divorce work or personal injury law, where something bad has happened and they’re looking for some relief.”
Down on the Farm
Mark Murphey Henry, Henry Law Firm
Mark Murphey Henry is reaping what he’s sown.
The Fayetteville attorney practiced law for less than a year before realizing he needed to be out on his own. Today, he runs a specialized, four-attorney intellectual property practice with a focus on agricultural law. (The four are soon to be three—Henry’s wife, Courtney Rae Henry, whom he met on their first day of law school, will be leaving the firm in January to join the Arkansas Court of Appeals.)
“I knew that in order to establish some kind of niche, I had to set myself apart,” Henry says. “I’m at one of maybe two firms in the nation that do what I do.”
What Henry—a registered patent attorney who has his LL.M. in agricultural law—does is specialize in the intersection between those two fields. In recent years, Henry Law Firm has brought nearly 30 cases under the Plant Variety Protection Act, an obscure federal regulation that gives breeders up to 20 years of exclusive control over the sales of plant varieties. From a practical perspective, this has meant bringing suits in 15 states against farmers and illegal seed dealers for reselling seeds from their crops.
“I started talking with seed companies that develop wheat and soybeans, and I asked them what they were doing, what farmers were stealing their harvest,” Henry says. “From an intellectual property standpoint, the issue is clear—if it takes one bushel of seeds to plant an acre of wheat, the harvest is going to be 80-100 bushels. That’s a whole lot of free copies—and it only took you sun and water to get them.”
For Murphey, setting up his firm was a trial by fire. “You learn so much faster when you’re on your own,” he says. “You learn about accounting immediately. You learn about working on files that will pay. And you realize that contingency fee cases are really a true leap of faith.”
What he’s gained in the process is the ability to move fast and keep his firm on the cutting edge of patent and ag law. “I live in Fayetteville because I want to live here, not because it’s the patent metropolis,” Henry says. “You have to be really creative at getting work in the door.”
The Joys of Flexibility
Ralph Yelverton, Stubblefield & Yelverton
Ralph Yelverton knew that big-firm life wasn’t how he wanted to begin his career. An accounting major in college, he went to law school at the University of Mississippi, then got his master’s in tax law at the University of Florida before joining what was Stubblefield & Yelverton, then Stubblefield, Mallette & Harvey, in Flowood, Miss., population 6,762, just outside of Jackson. At the time, the firm had only three partners and three associates. Yelverton is now a partner.
“I chose a small firm over a larger firm for the independence and flexibility,” he says. “I wanted the ability to control my own business and how successful I would be.”
Today, the firm has four attorneys and a healthy stream of referrals from other attorneys, CPAs and financial planners. “Although we don’t have the economic resources of the large firms, our clientele is vast and extends throughout the state and into neighboring states,” Yelverton says. “The transactions and types of clients we deal with you would find at any large firm—clients whose net worth exceed $60 or $70 million.”
The firm’s small size allows Yelverton and his colleagues to offer clients a personal and responsive practice, along with cost-effective billing arrangements. “The financial planners and CPAs who refer clients know that they won’t walk away with a large bill or an uncertain bill. They know we’ll be fair to the client,” he says.