- See below for three specific studies of small town lawyers.
From Practicing Law in Small-Town America, Chapters 19 Through 21
Editor's Note: We are giving you this article as a primer on how attorneys in diverse practice settings discover the proper ways to run their businesses. In future issues, we will be presenting how other attorneys do so.
It is counterintuitive to find a major corporation headquartered in a small community distant from its principal markets, but that is exactly what Constellation Brands represents. What began as a small, family-owned wine company at the end of World War II is now a Fortune 1,000 corporation, part of the S&P 500 stock index, with 30 facilities and more than 4,300 employees, doing a worldwide business as the world’s number-one premium wine company.
Brian P. Meath, Constellation’s Vice President and Associate General Counsel, is a local boy who made good and, although he is a key legal adviser to a global corporation, he is closely tied to, and proud of, his roots in Canandaigua.
Brian Meath grew up in Canandaigua, the son of a longtime local family. His grandfather owned the local butcher shop that became a community institution not only among the human population, but also in the eyes of Canandaigua’s pets. A number of the shrewder canines in town would make Meath’s Market a local stop on their journeys around town in the days before leash laws did away with their opportunity to roam. They would stop in, politely wag their tails, and Howard Meath would always have a tasty meat treat for them.
An uncle, Eddie Meath, became a well-known and much-respected western New York radio and television personality who immersed himself in local charity work and was beloved for his warm heart and infectious good humor.
The Meath family ethos of community involvement carried over to Brian and meshes seamlessly with the similar attitude and activism of his employer.
Education and Career Progression
Brian Meath graduated from Canandaigua Academy and went on to college at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo, where he earned a degree in management science. From there, he went to law school at SUNY Buffalo, from which he graduated in 1981. He passed the New York State Bar Exam and took a position with the Canandaigua satellite office of a Rochester law firm (Sutton DeLeeuw Clark & Darcy LLP).
He concentrated on commercial and banking law and litigation and, after a few years with the firm, he made an unusual career move for a small-town attorney. He was contacted by a legal search firm (headhunter) and moved in-house with Rochester Telephone Corporation, where initially he managed litigation and represented the company in telephone regulatory matters (including telephone rate cases) before various federal and state agencies. Later, he added labor and employment law issues to his responsibilities.
In 1989, he was once again contacted by a headhunter and moved on to Fisons Pharmaceuticals, a UK company, working in its U.S. headquarters in Rochester. Here, he added another set of facets to his career personality, focusing his practice on corporate, contract, commercial, intellectual property, environment, health, and safety, in addition to labor and employment law matters.
Along the way, he was also able to add two additional degrees to his educational background—a master’s certificate in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University and an MBA from the William E. Simon Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Rochester.
After seven years at Fisons, the company was acquired in a hostile takeover (turned friendly) by Rhone-Poulenc-Rohrer, the French pharmaceutical giant. Meath became involved in negotiating the company’s divestiture of several component prescription and over-the-counter businesses, thereby adding knowledge of mergers and acquisition law and divestitures to his corporate resumé.
Rhone-Poulenc-Rohrer offered Brian a position in its suburban Philadelphia office but, while it was tempting, family concerns made it impossible for him to accept. The Meaths have a son with cerebral palsy (now a student at St. John Fisher College in Rochester) who required services only some of which would have been available in the Philadelphia area after considerable time on a long waiting list. As the Meaths were already receiving high-quality services in the Rochester area, moving was out of the question.
Consequently, Brian invoked his “golden parachute” and instead took a position as Paychex, Inc.’s first in-house counsel. Several years prior, a Paychex vice president of marketing asked Brian to send him some material designed to persuade the CEO to hire an attorney. When the time came to follow through, Brian’s name naturally came up.
Paychex was growing rapidly and, as is typically the case with rapidly growing companies, could no longer rely solely on legal advice and services from outside law firms. The 25-year-old company had been founded by Thomas Golisano with a $3,000 investment and a vision of making outsourced payroll services available to small companies. Today the company is the second-largest payroll-outsourcing company in the United States, has 100+ offices nationwide, employs more than 12,000 people, and has more than 1 million customers. It now provides the full range of human resources services to its clients. Golisano has run for governor of New York three times as an independent.
At Paychex, Meath’s principal duties encompassed human resources matters for both the payroll and human resources services segments of the business. He stayed at Paychex for only two years before being recruited by Constellation Brands in 1998.
The process by which Brian wound up at Constellation Brands is both interesting and an object lesson in effective networking, mindful that being highly personable and having developed a reputation for high competence and hard work is an essential platform. Brian’s daughter and the daughter of one of the Constellation Brands principals both participated at a dance competition where Brian and the wine company executive sat for several hours watching their children compete. He had known Marvin Sands, the Constellation founder, through their mutual involvement in Canandaigua community activities associated with the local hospital. A short time later, he received a call from a company attorney and was invited to lunch with both the lawyer and the executive (Marvin Sands’s son, who was also general counsel). After two years with Paychex, he was aware that he would never have the title of General Counsel (Paychex continued to engage an outside law firm to serve in that capacity) and, therefore, was open to other career opportunities. At the time, Constellation was embarked on an acquisitions binge and a major reorganization, and needed additional legal talent.
Brian was soon on board as a staff attorney. A consequence of the reorganization was that the Canandaigua office became the headquarters of the company’s Wine Division while the new Fairport, New York, office (24 miles north of Canandaigua) became home to the Constellation parent company.
Today the company has 10 attorneys, four in Canandaigua, five in Victor (10 miles north of Canandaigua, where the parent company moved its headquarters office) and one in San Francisco (the former Beam Wine Estates General Counsel).
In his decade and a half with Constellation Brands, Meath has experienced not only the growth of the legal function as the corporation expanded and grew larger and more complex, but also a major change in the company business model. The corporate expansion from wine into the beer and spirits businesses was followed in recent years by a contraction, consisting of the creation of a joint venture for the beer business, a divestiture of the value spirits brands, and an evolution back into what the company does best, the wine business, with an emphasis on growing its existing brands. Two factors provided the major impetus for this strategic reversal: (1) heavy competition in Australia, and (2) changes in tax policy in the United Kingdom.
Both the expansion and subsequent contraction involved the company’s attorneys heavily in business matters. However, Meath’s practice has remained similar to what his responsibilities were at Rochester Telephone, Paychex, and Fisons—a focus on labor and employment law. He is also involved in finance matters; negotiating vendor, supplier, and distributor contracts; regulatory matters (including federal and state alcohol beverage, environment, and health and safety matters); corporate, commercial, and intellectual property law matters; litigation and outside counsel selection and management; and considerable involvement on the “business side.”
A Typical Meath Day
In contrast to almost all of the area’s private practitioners, Brian Meath works long hours and weekends. He comes to his office every morning with a mental and physical list of tasks to be accomplished.
In deference to modern technology, he spends his first few hours of each day on his email. Outside counsel matters and litigation management is always part of the workday equation because projects and cases for and against the company are a continuing nationwide and international phenomenon. Monitoring and strategizing with local counsel around the world is very time-consuming. The plurality of domestic projects is in California, home to the largest piece of Constellation Brands’ U.S. winery and vineyard operations. He emphasized that, in selecting outside counsel, his hiring decisions are based on the skills and expertise of the individual attorney as opposed to the law firm.
The rest of his customary day is taken up with regulatory affairs, labor and employment matters, and business issues that require legal input.
Brian said that he spends too much time “putting out fires,” but that he and his colleagues encourage their internal clients to come to them before a crisis jells.
He also must spend a good deal of time traveling.
His work commitments do not allow him to remain involved with local bar activities, something he was able to do until he went to work for Fisons.
Brian Meath bounced around a good bit during his formative years in practice. He worked for five different employers in his first 17 years as an attorney before settling down with Constellation Brands. This kind of job history, unusual for the late 20th century, is now commonplace in the 21st century. In fact, the stability exemplified by working for the same employer for the past 14 years is unusual in this era of economic upheaval and diminishing job security.
The difference between the kind of job changing that marked Brian’s earlier career and most of what falls into that category today (which is commonly labeled, somewhat pejoratively, “job-hopping”) is that Brian’s moves were strategic moves upward, with the possible exception of the move from Rhone-Poulenc-Rohrer to Paychex, which was prompted by family priorities.
Both his move to Paychex and the subsequent one to Constellation Brands exemplify the best and most sophisticated type of networking that an attorney can bring to bear on his or her career.
Brian Meath could be the poster child for effective legal networking.
Finally, although he works for a large company in a very small community, there is no accompanying downsizing of practice complexity or sophistication. The matters on which he works differ not at all from those that vex General Motors, General Electric, or General Mills and its attorneys in the major metropolitan areas in which they dwell.
The same holds true for other large corporations that happen to be headquartered in small towns. For example, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, is, like Constellation Brands, headquartered in a small town—Bentonville, Arkansas (population 35,000)—the home of its founder, Sam Walton. Nevertheless, the legal and business matters that its legal office handles are as wide-ranging and sophisticated as any New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles company.
Ed Hanley—Into the Ninth Decade
Ed Hanley has been a practicing attorney for almost 60 years. He represents the older generation of Canandaigua practitioners in more ways than one. Going strong and ably counseling his clients at age 82, Ed has no intention of retiring. His attitude is reflective of a long-ago era when local lawyers worked well into their “golden” years. Ed is also an exemplar of the “Dick Tolins Syndrome” (see Chapter 1), the high-powered attorney with a sophisticated corporate practice who looks for something else at mid-life.
Background and Education
Ed Hanley was born in Canandaigua in 1929. His father was the local Oldsmobile dealer, a successful enterprise until the business became a victim of the World War II gas rationing imposed in May 1942, which restricted 50 percent of drivers to only three to four gallons a week. Thereafter, Ed’s father served in two public positions: Chairman of the Ontario County Board of Supervisors and County Treasurer.
Young Ed received his K-12 schooling at the old Union School on Main Street, which was torn down in 1950 and replaced by a new elementary school, an architectural gem illustrative of the kind of solid, well-designed education facilities that sprouted all over America in the immediate post-war years. The old, multistory Union School was razed none too soon, as it began to sway dangerously in even moderate winds.
He went on to Canandaigua Academy, graduating in 1947, and from there to Hobart College in nearby Geneva, New York, followed by Cornell Law School in Ithaca, 60 miles southeast of Canandaigua, from which he graduated in 1954.
Hanley was admitted to the New York State Bar that same year and took a position as an associate with Lipshutz Sutton, a medium-size Rochester law firm (25–30 attorneys).
He practiced commercial real estate law, banking law and litigation, and trusts and estates at the firm well into the 1990s. Along the way, a prominent Canandaigua attorney asked Ed if he would be willing to work for him several mornings each week, an appealing arrangement that was also countenanced by his firm partners.
In the 1970s, he moved to South Bristol, a hilly rural area a few miles south of Canandaigua. Eventually, he tired of his commute to and from Rochester and the more frenetic world of city practice. Consequently, he left the firm in the mid-1990s and opened his own practice in Canandaigua, intending to eschew litigation and focus primarily on real estate matters. Ed Hanley had come home after 40 years.
His practice prospered and his work-life balance and lifestyle became more relaxed and palatable. A recent study of commuters who drive more than 25 miles (per a May 2012 “ABC Evening News” report) revealed that these commuters suffer more obesity, high blood pressure, and marital strife ending in divorce.
Hanley says that law practice has changed dramatically since he began his legal career, and that the gulf that distinguishes city from small-town practice has widened. Small-town practice is very personal (a drumbeat heard constantly during all of my interviews), whereas client distance from practitioners in the city is quite marked. He also finds that he can accomplish things on the telephone in Canandaigua that he could not do in Rochester.
One of the more startling facts he shared was that when he began his career in 1954, there was no such thing as the billable hour. Everything back then used to be “project billing,” a phenomenon that is now creeping (some would say sweeping) back into attorney-client arrangements and is touted by legal commentators as something entirely new and innovative.
I did not, however, encounter any alternative form of billing in any of my small-town lawyer interviews. Universally and uniformly, the billable hour is still king in small-town America. However, there is a decided difference from big-city legal billing practices that likely accounts for the billable hour’s small-town ubiquity: the hourly rates are substantially less. Several of my big-city attorney clients billed at rates approaching $1,000 an hour, which contributed to their becoming my legal career transition counseling clients. In Canandaigua, $250 approaches the high end of hourly billing rates.
Canandaigua and Ontario County attorneys were almost all “home-grown” in the 1950s. Now they primarily come from elsewhere, armed with different and diverse backgrounds and experiences that have elevated both their practices and the community. The huge growth in population mobility has increased the incidence of newcomers entering small communities and opening practices or going to work for local organizations, and has conditioned local communities to their acceptance. There is no longer anything unique about a new arrival in town opening a law practice.
Technology has wrought huge changes in legal practice. Ed has a computer at home but not at his office, which is very much a paper operation (huge piles of paper are stacked on his desk and shelves). My first impression, on seeing his paper-intensive office, was one of disorder and chaos, but after spending several hours there, it was apparent that Ed seems to know where everything is, and when he does not, his capable, part-time paralegal does.
He uses his computer for work-related matters when at home and values the flexibility that this affords him. Unlike many older attorneys who abhor the new technologies, Hanley is accepting and philosophical about their inevitability.
Hanley also said that the judiciary had evolved, especially with respect to the “blending” of both courts and judicial duties—county court judges in New York also preside over Family Court and often over Supreme Court hearings. Once elected, a county judge may also be assigned to preside at a hearing in a different court.
He also strongly favors New York’s existing system of elected judges, saying that he “trusts the people more than the politicians,” a viewpoint that prevails among local practitioners and is very similar to what Judge Bill Kocher (see Chapter 26) gave as his rationale for preferring popular election of judges.
Another major difference Hanley observes is that legal services costs have skyrocketed. For example, when Ed began practicing, the fee to record a mortgage with the clerk of courts was $9. Today, the filing fee for recording a mortgage in Ontario County is $50 for a one-page mortgage and $5 for each additional page.
Note: Inflation, which averaged 3.74 percent annually from 1954 to 2012, would demand a $75.50 filing fee today.
Hanley’s “macro” view of practice has a lot to do with how banking law has changed. At his Rochester firm, he was heavily involved in banking law practice and deeply involved in sorting through the wreckage resulting from the savings and loan crisis in 1989. Columbia Savings & Loan, one of the major problem institutions, was one of his clients. The U.S. government spent $250 billion “resolving” the failed institutions before declaring victory by Congress’s statutory deadline of December 31, 1995, for terminating the Resolution Trust Corporation, which was established to manage the dissolution of the failed S&Ls. Hanley said that “$250 billion seemed like a lot of money at the time, but not anymore,” dwarfed by the government’s multitrillion-dollar bailout of the “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions.
Banking law practice changed massively in the aftermath of the S&L crisis, when Congress’s response was to largely eliminate the distinctions between banks and S&Ls, reflective of the sea changes in financial institution business models. Increasingly, regulatory compliance and attendant reporting requirements were layered upon institutions, making bank regulation the paramount concern and forcing other aspects of the practice to the back burner.
His summary observation is that small-town practice is far more “relaxed” than city practice and that this is true not only of attorneys, but also of their clients, which makes for a much healthier relationship between lawyer and client. He said that it is not uncommon for his clients to drop in when they have a matter to discuss, even absent an appointment. They come into his office unannounced, sit down, and begin talking about whatever is on their minds, whether it concerns a legal issue or something completely unrelated. The informality and ease with which community residents—both clients and others—do this is not a problem for Ed Hanley. Listening to them is just common courtesy and very good business practice.
Ed made three interesting observations about the future of law practice in the area.
• First, the Family Courts need to do something to resolve matters before them more efficiently. His observation is that these cases go on forever, and that some never are resolved. They just keep getting continued.
• Second, family law is becoming more complex as family relationships become more complex. This contributes to the lack of a finite and final resolution to these cases, which harms everyone—the parties, dependents, the attorneys, the judges, and the legal system.
• Third, he believes that small-town real estate practice in New York will disappear, as banks and title companies increasingly “call the shots.”
Ed Hanley is at the upper end of the attorney age demographic in Ontario County. However, he is not alone. There is, of course, no mandatory retirement age in Canandaigua or anywhere else for private practitioners. Unlike so many of their big-city counterparts, small-town attorneys appear to keep on practicing significantly longer. The burnout factor so frequently mentioned by my big-city attorney clients who were nearing retirement age never came up in my research.
Although almost 83 years old, Ed still gets new clients without advertising his services, owing to word-of-mouth endorsements. Moreover, his existing, longtime clients are incredibly loyal and do not appear to see his age as a detriment.
This may go back to what he said about the far more relaxed nature of small-town legal practice. It seems to keep practitioners younger, more energetic, and quite enthusiastic about what they do. Like “burnout,” the word “stress” never entered into my subjects’ conversation when talking about what it was like practicing in this environment. That may be the most remarkable and palpable difference between practicing in a small town and spending a career in a metropolitan area.
The Public-Sector Lawyers
Small-town lawyering is by no means the exclusive province of solo practitioners and small law firms. Canandaigua and Ontario County exemplify the diversity of careers that are available to attorneys who serve the public interest. The community is home to a city corporation counsel (see Chapter 14), a county attorney’s office, a district attorney’s office, and a public defender’s office that, in the aggregate, currently employ approximately30 attorneys, more than one-third of the entire lawyer population of the county.
Government law practice in Canandaigua and Ontario County is not what it was a generation ago when there were only a handful of attorneys in the District Attorney’s and County Attorney’s Offices (primarily part-timers), while the notion of a Public Defender’s Office and a City Corporation Counsel were not even on the table. From these modest beginnings, the number of public-sector attorneys has grown by approximately 700 percent, while city and county populations have grown only modestly.
The reasons for the disconnect between general population growth and the proliferation in the number of government lawyers are not difficult to identify. Probably the greatest influence has been the increasing intervention of government at all levels into the daily lives of citizens and businesses.
At the federal level, more than 150 federal agencies and offices are involved in regulatory activities. They currently administer more than 163,000 pages of rules and regulations. That number does not include the Internal Revenue Code (which is a law—not a regulation—codifed in Title 26 of the United States Code). No one really knows how many pages it contains. In committee and floor debates, members of Congress have proclaimed lengths ranging from 2,500 pages (Sen. Rob Portman [R-OH]) to 2.5 million pages (Rep. Nick Smith [R-MI]) and virtually every number in between. And that is not the whole federal regulatory story. There is also an unknown number of regulations amounting to tens of thousands of pages that never make it into the official Code of Federal Regulations but still affect citizens and businesses and can have considerable regulatory bite.
New York State is also not exactly a regulatory wallflower. New Yorkers are second only to Californians in being the most highly state-regulated citizens in the land. Moreover, since so many state laws and regulations impose regulatory reporting and compliance requirements on county, city, town, and village governments, the regulatory matrix is compounded and ever more complex and confusing. And when life becomes more complicated, the natural place to turn for assistance in sorting things out is—to lawyers. Don’t expect this regulatory barrage to cease anytime soon. Regulations are not something that regulatory agencies cobble together out of whole cloth on their own initiative. Instead, they are the direct result of the legislative activities that churn out thousands of new laws every year. Even the first session of the current 112th Congress enacted almost 90 new public laws in 2011, many with major legal impact. On January 1, 2012, 40,000 new state laws took effect.
As long as members of Congress and state representatives keep introducing tens of thousands of bills each year that are then referred to committees and subcommittees (more than 200 in Congress alone), this onslaught will continue. The annual barrage of new laws added to, amending or superimposed upon existing laws assures that attorneys will never run out of work.
Technology has had a major impact on attorney efficiency (even in small towns, where formerly large law libraries have shrunk significantly in size as the world digitizes) but cannot hope to overcome the legislative and regulatory head start and annual torrent of new directives emanating from Washington, D.C., Albany, and other state capitals.
This regulatory barrage, more than anything, accounts for the growth in the local public-sector attorney population, a phenomenon that is found throughout the United States, even in the most economically hard-pressed areas. In practical terms, this means that while many state-level lawyers have lost jobs since the beginning of the Great Recession, the impact on local lawyers has been far less.
Public-sector law, whether criminal or civil, has become both more complex and more interesting over the past quarter century. This is due not only to the range of issues local government attorneys must address, but also to the challenges they face from more creative criminals on the one hand and would-be defrauders on the other hand. In addition, new problems and issues have arisen as a consequence of national problems that have local manifestations, such as creative financing, innovative technologies, new types of investment models, new energy paradigms, etc.
A local government practice today is ever-evolving, and the pace of that evolution is accelerating. That makes for an exciting, interesting, and demanding career, as you will see in the following chapters.