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May 2005
Big City Counsel with Small Town Delivery

     Two lawyers exhibit personalities as opposite as two adversaries in a courtroom, yet they strive for similar goals in their practice. David W. Erdman and Steven A. Hockfield are the driving forces behind Erdman and Hockfield, LLP, a firm that is dedicated to high principles and moral ethics.

Erdman and Hockfield provides legal advice in Charlotte in the areas of business and corporate law, marital and domestic disputes and commercial real estate. It also provides such basic services as living wills, contracts, personal injury and premarital agreements.

“A law firm is a business,” Erdman points out. “While people don’t usually view it as such, a law firm functions productively like any other business; however, it’s a business involving ethics and advice – the results of which may permanently affect people’s lives.”

 

Building a practice

Hockfield is the managing partner of the firm. Born in Durham, he holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He financed his way through law school by teaching undergraduate accounting at the Kenan-Flagler Business School and was admitted to the bar in 1970. He began practicing law in 1972, then set up his own solo practice in 1986 and joined with Erdman in 1993.

In 1979, Hockfield was appointed by former Gov. Jim Hunt to the North Carolina State Banking Commission until 1987. He is past president of Mecklenburg Ministries, a clergy-lay organization with the goal of breaking down racial, religious and other barriers. He is also a member, past president and honorary life president of Temple Israel. He’s been practicing law for 33 years. In his spare time, Hockfield reads the latest cases that have come down from the North Carolina Supreme Court and the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

Hockfield was recently dubbed one of the “Legal Elite” in a statewide publication, a recognition that only 2.6 percent of the state’s lawyers ever earn. His peers voted him as one of the best lawyers in North Carolina in the category of Business Law. For a small-firm lawyer to achieve that recognition is unusual, as most of the attorneys who were recognized work at large law firms.

“That tells us that other lawyers recognize Steve as one of the top business lawyers in the state of North Carolina,” Erdman comments.

Erdman considers himself the spirit of the firm. Born at Camp Lejeune, he grew up in rural Bridgeton near New Bern. He attended Duke University as an Angier B. Duke Scholar and earned a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering. He then studied law at Georgetown University where he was elected national president of the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. He was admitted to the bar in 1975.

At age 24, he had the opportunity to work on the staff of the Senate Watergate Committee researching witness data. In 1976, he moved to Charlotte in 1976 and began practicing law, starting his own firm in 1981. In 1999, he was selected to fill a vacancy on the Charlotte City Council.

Erdman says he located to Charlotte because he could see that there’s a sense of energy here related to entrepreneurship: “This is a city of commerce, not a city of government.” And he himself has exhibited his entrepreneurial bent. In 1980, he bought a house on the corner of East 7th Street and Laurel Avenue. Several years later, he had it torn down and built the present office building occupied by the law firm. Erdman had realized his dream of developing the site, despite the throes of recession in 1992, opening the new offices of Erdman and Hockfield in 1993.

The lawyers’ entrepreneurial bent didn’t stop there, however. They are always looking for better and more efficient ways to serve their clients’ needs. One thing they are particularly proud of is their use of a particular computer interface with a dual computer screen that they use during client meetings. In fact, Erdman came up with the idea nearly ten years ago. The dual screen allows lawyer and client, each viewing a computer screen, to work together more efficiently and at less cost.

Both attorneys consider themselves tech-savvy. Neither has used old-style dictation for years. Hockfield says that he is considered the firm’s self-taught computer guru. A couple of decades ago he wrote accounting programs in Lotus. He’s devised a timekeeping system using Corel’s WordPerfect. Now, they use spreadsheets.

 

Personal counsel

In addition to the two partners, Erdman and Hockfield employs two associates and four staff members. Two legal assistants have worked with Erdman since the 1980s. Each attorney at the firm brings his or her own set of talents to the practice. However, they all adhere to the standard of treating the firm’s clients as the finest and most important people on earth, Erdman says.

Erdman and Hockfield are readily accessible to their clients. They have made it the firm’s policy that no telephone calls are to be screened by the attorneys at their office.

Erdman’s business card lists on the back the services that the firm offers, making it easy for potential clients to see, at a glance, how the firm can help them. However, how they practice law is more important than the types of services they offer, according to Erdman. The four attorneys at the firm make client service their prime focus.

“It’s how we approach legal issues that matters,” Erdman said. “I work to establish a client relationship where the client knows he or she comes first.”

Erdman says his approach with clients is different from the typical lawyer’s, and he produces lists of referrals proving its effectiveness. In fact, he’s tried to model himself after one of America’s most historical and well-known lawyers: “I am a big fan of Abraham Lincoln. I strive to provide Lincoln’s kind of personalized small-town lawyering in the big city.”

In addition, Erdman has authored “Your Lawyer’s Promise” that, in effect, lists his ethical obligations and expectations. They are common sense ideas. Yet, they go beyond the standard attorney-client agreement.

Among the selections: “I will do the majority of your legal work with you present or on the telephone with me. Your case is about you; it is not about me or the opposing lawyer.” And, “I will provide you my best guidance, even if it means I advise you to pay the opposing party to settle, rather than paying me additional amounts as attorney’s fees.”

A lawyer is required to be zealous in representing the clients’ interests, Erdman points out. His goal is to get problems resolved. Humiliating the opposing side is not a goal. Hockfield advises clients not to “burn bridges” because one never knows where one will be in the future in relation to the people one has dealt with unfairly.

People tend to adopt the personality of the lawyer they work with, Erdman says. Whether the lawyer is a fighter or a peacemaker, the client usually follows suit. But Erdman says that the latter approach is often more successful, especially in the long run. “I’ve had enough success in handling clients’ cases to believe in the principles that I follow,” he nods knowingly.

Erdman analogizes resolving legal issues to what a doctor does. When people have medical problems, they seek out a competent doctor. In a marital breakup, the parties need legal help. There are also emotional issues. If the clients are satisfied, they come back when they experience another problem.

Lawyers often deal with problems that defy an easy explanation. Erdman says that makes for a challenging career in the legal field.

 

Taking their own advice

Erdman and Hockfield offer some of their best legal advice to new lawyers: Listen to your clients, don’t jump to conclusions, and never hurry people. Even if the lawyer is being paid a fixed fee (rather than being paid for his time), an attorney should make sure that the client has said all that he or she needs to say.

“It is our obligation, as attorneys, to assist our clients in resolving their business and personal issues in an efficient and effective manner,” Hockfield maintains. However, listening and discerning the facts can be difficult.

Often, people who are in troubling situations are dealing with emotions. But getting to the core of the issue is what a conscientious lawyer must do in order to represent his or her client fully. Sometimes the issues concern children. In those cases, Erdman said he makes a point of looking out for their interests as well.

Lawyers also have to weigh all the factors. No matter how right the client is, the attorney must help the client decide how much an issue is worth in terms of time, energy and money, or whether it’s worth it at all. If litigation can be avoided, then both attorneys prefer going that route. Litigation is expensive and time-consuming. It’s usually better to seek resolution and get on with your life, Hockfield says.

“I don’t want to take the client’s money unless they can get value for it,” he points up. Hockfield helps his clients to understand what a reasonable settlement may be. In one instance, Hockfield was able to negotiate a multi-million dollar settlement for some partners involved in a lawsuit with the managing partner. Though much work went into resolving the issues of the case, good negotiation kept the case out of court and allowed a settlement that far exceeded what the partners would have received had it gone to trial.

Hockfield takes the word “counsel” at more than face value. Often, people are not involved in disputes but are just looking for sound advice. Sometimes there are personal issues rather than or in addition to legal matters. Hockfield said he helps define the problem and provides a course of action.

Erdman and Hockfield embrace a passion to help people solve their problems in the best possible way. Both attorneys work toward achieving a win-win situation. They know that if the client is happy or at least satisfied with the outcome of their efforts, that in turn will generate more business, whether through repeat business or referrals.

They take their craft seriously and work assiduously in their clients’ best interests.

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