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February 2005
A Case of Strength in Depth
By Ellison Clary

 

The Poyner & Spruill law firm represents clients in 29 areas of practice, yet its Charlotte office specializes in a half-dozen disciplines. As the office here has grown to 36 lawyers, the firm has allowed the Charlotte team to develop and forge its own identity, with some surprising twists.

“You start with one client and develop expertise and become known in the industry,” says Charlotte partner Frank Bryant, describing the gradual process that leads to becoming a standout in specific areas.

Charlotte senior partner Marc Harris concurs. “We are a full-service law firm filling the needs of our clients,” he says. “Still, we have several areas I think are particularly outstanding for us.”

The firm represents clients in financial services, real estate, construction, transportation, health care, and manufacturing. It handles all kinds of litigation, including defense of malpractice claims for professionals. Also among the firm’s key clients are closely held companies, creditors, and large-to-mid-sized employers.

To start the surprises, there’s the relative newness of the Charlotte office. Among the state’s oldest and largest practices with 100 attorneys, Poyner & Spruill is headquartered in Raleigh and maintains an office in Rocky Mount. Though the firm’s North Carolina roots date to 1883, the Charlotte presence began in 1988.

The firms counts financial services among its specialties and, although not unusual in a city that is a major financial center, the banks on the firm’s client list are nevertheless impressive, including RBC Centura, BB&T and Lexington State Bank. For financial institutions, Poyner & Spruill does lending, collections, foreclosures, securities and litigation.

Harris reckons the firm’s Charlotte bankruptcy and creditors’ rights group is the region’s largest and he praises Judy Thompson, the partner who leads it. Thompson is a board member for the American Bankruptcy Institute and Harris dubs her a “big business generator.” From across the country, firms needing bankruptcy services seek out Thompson, Harris says, to take advantage of her expertise and her national contacts.

The firm also handles a high volume of foreclosures for its banking clients. This brings up another unexpected twist. The in-house IT department has developed a revolutionary Web-based automated process for completing foreclosures, from the initial document production to sale of the property by a broker. The program dramatically reduces the time it takes banks to get their money out of foreclosed property.

“Eventually this technology will be used for other purposes as well, and we’re seeking patent protection for it,” Harris says.

With Charlotte claiming the headquarters of eight Fortune 500 companies, perhaps it’s surprising that Poyner & Spruill concentrates on serving closely held businesses. Bryant, whose specialty is advising closely held firms, explains that Charlotte has become a national banking center in only the last two decades, but the region always has boasted a vibrant business community made up mainly of small and closely held firms.

Bryant recalls an observation shared by former Bank of America executive vice president Ed Dolby a couple of years ago as he was ending his term as president of the Charlotte Chamber.

“Dolby said the banks in this community employ 30,000 people,” Bryant remembers. “The small and middle market companies here employ over 300,000. The point is that the economy is being driven by those smaller companies. That is our market. That’s who we look to support our continued growth.”

 

Closely Held Businesses

Closely held businesses can be as large as $500 million in annual revenue, Bryant cautions, but most are considerably smaller. He estimates that the Charlotte office serves more than 150 small businesses.

“The typical small business executive comes in on Monday morning and he’s got an employment issue, or a letter from the IRS, or a cash flow problem, or an adult child that’s coming along who may or may not be capable. Our role,” continues Bryant, “is to help this business person with those problems so he can do what he does best – run the company. We’ve filled every imaginable role, from contracts to mergers and acquisitions, financings and succession planning.”

Quick with her praise of Bryant is Joni Juba, whose family-owned Juba Aluminum Products Company fashions the outside “skin” for high-rise office towers throughout the southeast. Husband John Juba founded the Concord firm that employs 22, and serves as its president. Two of the couple’s three daughters also work there.

Joni Juba credits Bryant for helping her understand the dynamics of running a business when she signed on as chief executive three years ago. Bryant and his associates continue to help her run board meetings and retreats, draw up contracts and work on estate planning, she says.

Bryant was instrumental in getting Juba Aluminum Products a membership in the nascent Charlotte operation of the Family Business Center, a program of Wake Forest University’s Babcock Graduate School of Management. Joni Juba says her company wouldn’t have known about the program any other way and praises the advice it has provided.

Poyner & Spruill is a sponsor of the Charlotte campus of the Family Business Center, which helps members grapple with a wide range of challenges, from compensation to succession planning. During its first half-year in Charlotte, it operated from space in Poyner & Spruill’s office before finding a permanent home in SouthPark about a year ago.

Bryant calls the Center “a wonderful idea,” but adds that Poyner & Spruill wishes it had more visibility. “It’s kind of a well-kept secret,” he says.

Meanwhile, Poyner & Spruill helps smaller and mid-sized businesses by hosting it own periodic roundtable discussions to which the Charlotte office invites clients and prospective clients. The luncheons feature a speaker, either from the firm or from outside, on a topic important to closely held businesses. Participants enjoy picking each other’s brains, not to mention the free legal advice.

Bryant got a surprise of his own when he asked regular participants if they were tiring of the sessions and might want a break. “There was an uproar,” Harris chuckles. “They said ‘No way you’re going to stop this.’”

Poyner & Spruill now runs three different roundtable groups in Charlotte, and also holds regular seminars for area accountants, generally from smaller firms. The sessions are designed to get the CPAs up to date on legal issues that could affect them and their clients, Bryant says.

 

Vigorous Client Representation

The litigation specialty brings another surprise in that Poyner & Spruill places a high value on trial experience, even among younger attorneys.

Harris says the firm trains new attorneys in courtroom strategy, and actively works to ensure all litigators get a chance to work on major cases. The result is a pool of seasoned attorneys who are capable of handling a variety of cases ranging from the most complex litigation to the simple liability claim. Poyner’s clients benefit from this approach because younger attorneys’ time is usually less costly, yet these lawyers have the training and experience to properly handle the client’s case.

“We have really good litigators in all three offices,” says Harris, adding that they often handle insurance cases for clients such as the Delhaize Group. The parent of Food Lion supermarkets is among the firm’s top 10 clients.

“Being able to settle satisfactorily for your client prior to trial is always a good thing,” he says. “We always try to do that. Sometimes, however, it’s just in the client’s best interests to go to trial.”

Lawyer’s Mutual Liability Company of North Carolina, the malpractice insurance firm for lawyers, also calls upon the firm. Poyner & Spruill is among several firms approved to work with that company to represent its insured lawyers across the state. “We handle many of their  significant cases,” Harris says. “Jerry Parnell is a past state bar president and is our main contact for this client. He’s here in the Charlotte office.”

Rounding out the Poyner & Spruill areas of emphasis are health care law, employment law, and employee benefits. The firm represents such high profile clients as Pitt County Memorial Hospital, the largest medical facility in eastern North Carolina, and WakeMed Healthcare in Raleigh.

One of the firm’s major Charlotte clients is The Sanger Clinic, whose 65 doctors specialize in cardiovascular care. Stephen Wagner, Sanger’s senior administrator, says the reason is simple. “They just are very good at creatively handling various legal matters,” Wagner says. “They have experts in all different areas, which is really nice because sometimes you don’t know what you need exactly.”

Though Poyner & Spruill is not the counsel of record for Charlotte’s Carolinas HealthCare System, it does much of the system’s employee benefits work. Harris chairs the Carolinas College of Health Sciences board. In that capacity, he periodically hands out diplomas to nursing graduates. “That’s one of the most fun things I do,” he says, smiling.

Such civic involvements are important to Poyner & Spruill. The connections of the attorneys in its Charlotte office range from the board of the Elizabeth Neighborhood Association to the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission to the board of the Children’s Law Center. Both Harris and Bryant say they and others keep strong community ties from a sense of altruism. “It’s the right thing to do,” Harris states simply.

“I found when I joined this firm,” Bryant says, “there was a high level of professional skill, commitment to the community, and just fine people. I have found there are not many firms where you can say that you truly enjoy being with the people with whom you practice law. The attorneys here have a genuine commitment to the community, their clients, and each other.”

Attracting quality people who are seasoned in the profession has meant slow but steady growth for the Charlotte office and for Poyner & Spruill overall, according to Harris, who joined the firm in Charlotte 11 years ago. Firm wide, attorneys numbered in the mid-80s then and the firm has grown, somewhat deliberately, to today’s 100.

“If we need an associate who’s got two or three years of litigation experience, that’s who we go after,” says Harris, who adds that he anticipates Poyner & Spruill will grow statewide, as well as in Charlotte.

Bryant concurs, predicting the firm will grow faster, but not just for growth’s sake. “We’re not looking to add areas of expertise. We want to attract more depth in areas that are strong for us,” he says. “This is an integrated law firm. All for one and one for all.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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