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Utah Business

Several of the best legal experts in Utah gathered this month to discuss pressures in the industry, inflation, talent, and more.

A conversation with legal experts in Utah on industry pressures

This month, Utah Business partnered with Dentons Durham Jones Pinegar to host a roundtable event with legal experts in Utah. Moderated by N. Todd Leishman, president and chairman of Dentons Durham Jones Pinegar, they discussed pressures in the industry, DE&I initiatives, the hot Utah market, and more. Here are a few highlights from the event. 

What has changed at your firm since Covid?

Rebecca Hill | Attorney | Christensen & Jensen

The last two years have been a constant evolution. I think we are better for being able to have our attorneys and staff work remotely—it’s something they find beneficial in their life. The legal market has been changing, and we have had a lot of movement of associates and staff. Those challenges of hiring and dealing with those kinds of changes have been a huge change in our firm. It feels like I, and our firm administrator, have constantly been hiring for the last nine months. 

Robert Walker | Attorney | Kirton McConkie

[We’ve seen] a bit of an erosion of our firm culture. We’ve found that people are accountable to projects rather than relationships. As a result, it’s made mentoring more challenging, particularly at our associate level. I’ve found that it’s relationships that tend to keep people here. When you’re interested and know what’s going on in one another’s lives, that establishes an environment that people want to be a part of. When you strip that away, it simply becomes going to work just to get projects done. 

Brian Tarbet | Chief Civil Deputy | Office of the Utah Attorney General

We’re hemorrhaging because we’re sort of at the bottom of the legal food chain. We’re having a problem bringing [employees] in the front door and a problem keeping our senior people. Obviously, our compensation’s driven by the legislature. It’s a multi-session process, and they’ve been helping us, but not fast enough. Certainly, we don’t try to compete with you folks in the private sector, but we’re not really competitive right now with many of the other counties and other municipalities. It’s a real struggle for public sector lawyers, period, and for our office in particular.

What are you doing in your firm to preserve culture and retain people?

Ryan Bell | Partner | Kunzler Bean & Adamson

One of the things we decided to institute was a weekly team meeting, every Tuesday morning, everybody is in the office. We talk about all our projects and everything we have going on, and it’s a time to just have some touchpoints. Associates seem happier when they have a little more flexibility, and that’s great, but I agree with Rob that relationships tend [to suffer]. Mentoring just has to be a priority. 

Jonathan Hafen | Shareholder | Parr Brown Gee & Loveless

One of the things that’s important to us is to make every single lawyer feel like they are a stakeholder, whether it’s an associate or a partner. That’s been our brand for a long time. Everybody votes on everything that happens in the firm. Compensation is transparent. There is flexibility as far as where people work and, to some extent, how people work. I think that helps. The mantra that we’re focusing on is attracting the best talent, engaging the best talent, and retaining the best talent. 

How are we balancing increasing labor costs and the competition for talent?

Adam Smoot | Shareholder | Maschoff Brennan

I think part of it is knowing who you are—I’ve heard that comment a few times. Understanding where your place is in the market and being willing to recognize that for our firm, we’re not going to be able to pay as much as some of the big national firms. We have to be comfortable with that and recognize what it is that we offer. But as you know, there is an almost mandatory rise in our rates, and sometimes that’s just a candid conversation with clients. Unfortunately, some portions of the market are going to feel that squeeze. It’s a balance. We have to live with that tension and do our best to find where we are in the market and where we can be comfortable in our own skin.

Jeffrey Jones | Shareholder | Dentons Durham Jones Pinegar

There’s an opportunity to serve a broader spectrum of clients that have needs—especially on the lower end where it’s expensive—by using technology. Not too long ago, I looked at a number of software packages to review NDAs, for example, something that would take me 30-60 minutes depending upon how complicated it is. Some of these AI programs will do it in about five minutes, and you get a work product that you can then review in five or 10 minutes and provide back to the client not only quickly but at a reduced cost. We’ve heard a number of people talk about being more creative. I think we have to do that—we can’t stick with old patterns in this changing economy and this changing culture that we have, especially here in Utah. We have to be willing to take some risks. 

Do your clients perceive the pressures in the industry, and are they reacting to them?

Jeffrey Handy | Shareholder and Attorney | Babcock Scott & Babcock

I think they see it. One of [our concerns is] what does this change in the market mean for rates? Does that provide challenges for those seeking legal aid? I appreciate the efforts that the legislature has made with adjusting things with small claims court, and those adjustments will continue to play out over the next few years. But I know we have some clients who have made the decision [not to] litigate. They will find a solution that is a business solution before pursuing the legal solution. And I know that’s not unique in my situation—that’s probably true in most of our clientele.

Ryan Bell | Partner | Kunzler Bean & Adamson

Probably for the first time, Utah lawyers are representing many national—sometimes global—clients. It raises questions about how we’re going to serve our local clients. Smaller startups, inventors, and individual claimants can’t get justice. It’s probably coming on all of us as members of a bar who are entrusted to serve the public to figure that out, but also in terms of analyzing our positions in the market to think: Is there a place for just regular ma-and-pop-type startups and small businesses to go? Not everybody has to raise their rates to the absolute limit, but we can be more creative in terms of how we structure our compensation. 

What are you doing to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in your firms?

Jonathan Wayas | Associate Director | Utah Center for Legal Inclusion

I want to first give credit to our two law schools here, BYU and the University of Utah. They’re doing great work to bring diverse candidates into the market and diverse students into the schools through their fellowship and scholarship programs. The trick now is to keep them here. We have this pool of people that could potentially come into the law. One of the things we do is reach all the way down to sixth graders. A lot of them have an interest in law but have never met a lawyer before. I just went to a school career fair last week at a charter school that was mostly refugees. A lot of these kids came up and said, “I’m interested in law, but I don’t know how to be a lawyer.” They were very excited just to meet a lawyer, so I think that’s the first step. 

Mike Bailey | Shareholder and Director of Strategic Growth | Parsons Behle & Latimer

At Parsons, we’ve found that although increasing the recruiting pool is important, retention is critical. One of the things we’ve done is create an Attorneys of Color Affinity Group. It provides a safe space for attorneys of color to discuss their unique circumstances. It also creates a pathway for leadership, both at the firm and at the community level. We have a director of DE&I at the firm. We try not to just talk about diversity but instead institute the programs that we know will survive over a long time.

Wade Budge | Partner | Snell & Wilmer

In our various markets, we’ve funded LSAT preparation classes for candidates who maybe come from backgrounds where they haven’t had lawyers in their families. We’ve actually ended up hiring people who participated in that program. Having diversity and inclusion top-of-mind is key—recognizing that our entire profession depends on being relatable to those in the community, and we need to be thinking about how we can engage with them.

Robert Walker | Attorney | Kirton McConkie

We’ve found tremendous benefit in having the Utah Center for Legal Inclusion (UCLI) come to our firm, perform trainings, and help us understand how we put this into effect. As we look for talent and staff for our projects, we’ve found tremendous perspective and relief through a more diverse workforce. In addition to participating in that certification program from UCLI, we’ve expanded our on-campus interviews further than the schools here in Utah. 

Jesse Flores | Partner and Attorney | TraskBritt

DE&I is at the forefront of a lot of our major clients’ minds. In many ways, it’s a metric by which firms are being judged these days, and rightfully so. Even within the intellectual property realm, we’re pledged to have a certain amount of diversity just on the project level and the firm level for any work that’s being done for individual clients. Remote work has provided a lot of opportunities to reach potential candidates for the firm that would not have been interested in legal practice to begin with or that would not be interested in coming to Utah to begin with. 

What do you foresee for your firm in the next one to five years?

Wade Budge | Partner | Snell & Wilmer

I think there are a lot of elements of the profession which can only be taught in person. And I think that’s an important part of being a lawyer—to learn civility, learning how to empathize, and other things that don’t translate well through Zoom. But I also recognize that having all these technologies and being able to use them in ways we hadn’t used before has really broadened our reach. In the next five years, I see that we’re going to play to our strength. Lawyers are looking to come to this market that had never maybe even thought of Utah previously. In the next five years, we’re going to continue to look outward—ways to connect with other markets, do work with people in different offices and connect with clients both in-person and through these remote technologies that offer us a broader reach.

Laura Henrie | Attorney | “And Justice for All”

Certainly, we’re concerned about all of the same things you are. We—for a long time—have not been able to pay the salaries, so we’ve had to think about what it is that we have to offer. What is it that an attorney who comes to work for us and wants to build a career in the nonprofit sector is looking for? We have not yet had a large exodus of our attorneys. We’ve been incredibly fortunate. There are just so many people that need a lawyer. What’s really difficult for us is to triage: What is the greatest need? What is the most critical need? Evictions, for example, are something that we are getting so many calls on. And if somebody could show up in court and just represent that person on, “Here’s what the lease says,” that would make a huge difference. There just isn’t the manpower for that. There are so many pressing issues, and I think what we’re realizing is that a little bit of lawyer goes a long way.

Brian Lebrecht | President, Shareholder, and Director | Clyde Snow & Sessions

When there are changes in a market, it creates upheaval that also creates opportunity. We’ve spent some time focusing on “Who are we? Who do we want to be? What is our place in this market?” and coming to a consensus among our existing partners. There are now lots of other choices—any attorney or staff member can work any number of hours and earn a wide range of pay, lead a variety of different lifestyles, and everybody needs to pick what is right for them. We now understand what we offer, and we’re communicating that and attracting the right kind of people that fit into what we have to offer. 

What do you believe makes the Utah market attractive to a relatively large number of national firms that have set up shop here? 

David Wright | Office Managing Partner | Foley & Lardner

I think what’s driving all of this so-called craziness is we have Utah companies that are doing very well in a global economy and a governor who is doing the right things to attract business to the state. I’m sure I speak for everybody when I say we’re crazy busy. Because of that, I had to find a national platform that could support a very growing and diverse practice. I went from employing about 20 attorneys at Maschoff Brennan to about 65 [at Foley]. It was needed for me to be able to sleep at night and, more importantly, for my clients to get the services that they needed. That’s why I made the move. But I think what’s driving firms coming into town is the demand for legal services, and that demand’s been growing for several years. With the legal talent that we have here in Utah, I think it was just a natural evolution.

Mekenna is the editor of Utah Business magazine and a graduate of the print journalism program at Utah State University. She has written about business, music and culture for publications like Business Insider, Time Out, SLUG Magazine, Visit Salt Lake and the Standard-Examiner. She loves hiking, thrifting, reading and going on camping trips with her partner in their 1986 Land Cruiser.