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February 2011
Small Firm, Big Defense for Employers
By Heather Head

     Philip Van Hoy and his wife spent the summer of 1983 drawing charts filled with plusses and minuses. They were about to make a decision that would change the course of their lives and define Van Hoy’s entire career. By Labor Day, the plusses column had grown long enough that the choice was clear. Van Hoy gave notice to his employer, and struck out alone.

     The decision had been coming for a long time. A former U.S. Army soldier, Van Hoy spent the early part of his career as an in-house attorney for Duke Energy. The experience was valuable, but he knew he could do better financially in private practice. So when a private law firm out of Hartford approached him in 1979 to help open an office in Charlotte, he seized the opportunity.

     The company had sent a partner from Boston to join him. The other lawyer was senior within the firm, but “he was shy,” says Van Hoy. “So I became the business developer.”

     Before long, however, Van Hoy became frustrated that, although he was bringing in most of the firm’s Charlotte business, the other lawyer was receiving most of the compensation. He approached the firm, and asked them to compensate him at least on a level with the other lawyer, but they weren’t willing to do that. And that is when he and his wife began drawing up their charts.

     Because he had developed most of the business for the Hartford firm, Van Hoy took most of his clientele with him into his new practice. Nevertheless, he recalls, “the next two or three years were filled with terror.”

     Like most new business owners, he found himself constantly juggling the need to develop new business with the need to care for existing clients, and finding that there was never enough time for both.

     “Eventually,” he recalls, “I figured that logically, if I had more to do than I could manage, I shouldn’t worry about where the next work was coming from.” The logic worked for him, and he reports that the company never saw a bad year. “Through client referrals and reputation-building, the book of business has gotten steadily bigger and bigger.”

 

Discovering Partnership

     In the early years, Van Hoy shared an office and expenses with another person, but it was six years before Van Hoy had a partner in the firm. He missed the collegial atmosphere of a larger firm. But he did have some friends to talk about issues with and bounce ideas off on. One of them was Craig Reutlinger, general counsel at what was then called the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority (now the Carolinas HealthCare System).

     Like Van Hoy, Reutlinger had a military background, having served in the Air Force as a judge advocate and medical legal consultant. They met through Van Hoy’s father who was a surgeon at the Hospital Authority, found they had a lot of values and interests in common, and became good friends.

     By 1989, Reutlinger had grown tired of working for a single client, and wanted the greater variety that a smaller practice would afford. He also liked the idea of fewer administrative meetings and the bureaucratic headaches that accompany work in a large organization. So, shortly after he left the Hospital Authority, he and Van Hoy joined up.

     His background in health care law, including health care employment issues, was a strong complement to Van Hoy’s emphasis on employment law, and although Reutlinger had to build his own client base from the ground up, he never regretted the step.

     Over the next seven years, the pair added another partner, Paul Taylor, who later moved to Asheville where he practices law and enjoys the mountain lifestyle. During those seven years, the trio steadily grew the business and in 1996, they hired their first summer intern, Stephen Dunn.

     Dunn also had a military background as the son of an Air Force officer. But at the time that he accepted the summer internship, he says, “I was ambivalent about law as a career and I wasn’t even sure I would finish law school.” He also loved art, beach music, theater, and photography. Still, the internship seemed like a good idea, so he took it.

     “Working with Phil, Craig, and Paul showed me it was possible to practice law at the highest level of competence and professionalism, while maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and having fun,” he says.

     For their part, the partners in the firm knew they needed Dunn. “He had a cosmopolitan view of the world,” says Van Hoy. “And he had the polish to deal with older people, plus style, intellect for the business, and he is a great wordsmith.”

     Dunn joined the firm as an associate as soon as he graduated in 1998, and became a partner in the firm four years later in 2002.

     In the meantime, Van Hoy had met Bryan Adams while serving as opposing counsel in a discrimination case. While defending his client against Adams’s client, Van Hoy got to see him in action, saying, “He made a very good impression.”

     Adams at the time was a partner in a firm handling a wide variety of business litigation including employment litigation. He had, however, always wanted to narrow his focus to defense-side employment law.

     His father had owned a mid-sized printing company when he was growing up in Charlotte, where he says he “learned how excessive government regulation can distract a business owner from running the business, and can complicate necessary personnel decisions.” He was eager to help other businesses protect their interests.

     So when Taylor moved to Asheville in 2000, and word went around that Van Hoy and Reutlinger were looking for another partner, Adams stepped up. “I knew the firm had a reputation for being an outstanding labor and employment boutique firm, and an aggressive advocate for corporate clients,” remembers Adams, “and I wanted to be a part of that.”

     The firm’s focus was a perfect fit, and the firm had more than enough work to share. “I asked Phil if the firm had enough work to keep me busy,” chuckles Adams, “and he burst out laughing. I knew that was a good sign.”

     The four partners have remained together ever since, operating with only two other employees, legal assistants Carolyn Brooks and Sara Gillenwater.

 

Boutique Counsel

     All six members of the Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Dunn team prefer the small size of their firm over larger environments in which they have worked. Both the small size and the tightness of the firm’s focus provide multiple benefits to clients as well.

     Though elegant and well-appointed, the company’s 100-year-old plantation-style building on East Boulevard boasts significantly lower overhead compared to the more ostentatious digs of uptown firms. Perhaps more importantly, the smaller staff size eliminates the need for frequent or lengthy staff meetings, and makes it easier to keep track of potential conflicts, reducing the amount of time and resources devoted to research before a client can even be accepted into the practice.

     As a result, Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Dunn is able to offer clients a highly effective, boutique level of service at a cost well below that of many competing firms. Clients know that when they hire this firm, they will receive the full attention of a named partner. Additionally, because the firm focuses exclusively on employment and healthcare law, they offer a level of expertise unparalleled by larger companies whose employment law department may not be a core competency. Other lawyers are comfortable referring employment and health care matters to the firm, since the firm will only handle what is referred, due to the firm’s focused, specific areas of practice.

 

Big Representation

     Employment law constitutes an array of services, from helping develop contracts and employee manuals, to dispute resolution and litigation. At Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Dunn, says Van Hoy, their emphasis is on “minimizing the intrusion of laws and government agencies on to the decision-making of our clients in regard to employment matters.”

     Because of that emphasis, a large portion of their business involves consultative services. Clients learn to trust the firm and they bring questions and ideas to the firm before embarking on new employment endeavors. Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Dunn consult on everything from whether a non-compete agreement is enforceable to how best to lay off employees without running into legal trouble.

     “About 40 to 50 percent of our work,” says Van Hoy, “is defending discrimination cases, where someone alleges that they were treated unfairly due to race, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or age.” This work is one reason the firm’s business model is virtually recession-proof.

     He explains that during a recession, people are far more likely to fight lay-offs with discrimination cases. The defending companies have no choice but to hire counsel, and since Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Dunn is lower cost than many larger firms, they are the natural choice.

     Another significant portion of the firm’s business involves non-compete agreements—writing, enforcing, and sometimes trying to break them. Because there is a business on both sides of the case, this is one area of law where they are frequently called in on the plaintiff’s behalf.

     They also handle wage and hour cases, OSHA work, and many aspects of health care law. For instance, Reutlinger helps medical practices organize themselves, write employment agreements, work through the legal ramifications of the dissolution of a practice, and deal with professional violations cases.

 

Testifying for the Future

     The field of employment law changes constantly, as do all fields of law, with new regulations, rulings, and laws frequently coming into (and out of) effect. But the business of employment law remains steady, even during recessions like the current one.

     “I’ve been practicing long enough to have been through several recessions,” says Van Hoy, “And our business has always remained steady, though the mix of business changes.”

     All four partners agree that in this respect, the near future is unlikely to bring very much change to their firm. Likewise, they don’t anticipate adding new attorneys nor does anyone expect to move or retire. But they do expect some trends in employment law to gradually change.

     Based on current trends, Dunn expects non-compete contracts, confidentiality agreements, and protecting trade secrets to become a larger element of employment law. He also expects to grow the mediation end of his practice.

     Adams expects the entire area of practice to continue becoming increasingly complex due to increased government regulations and radical expansion of existing employment laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

     Reutlinger looks for trends of consolidation among law firms to continue in the near future, with an eventual backlash. “The larger and larger firms get, the more risk is involved and ultimately, you get a meltdown.” Eventually, he expects more and more professionals to move into boutique firms like theirs, with tightly focused areas of expertise.

     Van Hoy concurs, adding that major corporations that have “reflexively” hired big law firms in the past are considering other options as a way of saving cost and obtaining greater expertise.

     Because the Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Dunn business model is based on focused expertise, high-level client care and attention, and sustainable growth, all the partners agree that the future is unlikely to hold major surprises for them. They strive in every client relationship to provide a level of service that ensures that the future holds just as few employment surprises for their clients as well.

 

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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