By Teri Saylor
Photos by Bryan Regan
In a different era, a law firm of 90 attorneys was a powerhouse. Now, Raleigh-based Poyner Spruill LLP, which counts that number on its staff, finds itself competing against rival firms boasting more than 1,000 lawyers around the U.S. and the globe.
The 134-year-old North Carolina firm is staying competitive by focusing on succession planning that hinges on retaining lawyers and putting younger ones into management positions more quickly — while staying true to its mission, Managing Partner Dan Cahill says.
“We are very comfortably a North Carolina-only firm, and I anticipate we always will be,” says Cahill, 50, who grew up in Raleigh and worked in marketing research for two years before earning a law degree at Wake Forest University. He’s spent the last 16 years at Poyner, where he was elected to lead the firm last April. He succeeded Joseph “Bo” Dempster, who remains with the firm after 12 years as managing partner. As part of the transition, Poyner’s five-member management committee expanded to include partners Chad Essick, 36, and Mike Slipsky, 39, who have been with the firm for 14 years and 12 years, respectively.
“You bring younger lawyers in, you teach them, you take the time to train them. You introduce them to your clients so that one day, partners can slow down as associates get older and ramp up. And then they take over those relationships,” Cahill says. “It’s a simple concept. It’s a little harder to put into practice, but it’s something we strive for.”
Passing the baton gracefully is a challenge in the legal world. “The vast majority of lawyers are not interested in talking about retirement,” says Camille Stell, vice president of client services for Lawyers Mutual of North Carolina, which sells liability insurance and provides other types of professional services. “Even some of the biggest and most sophisticated law firms do not have succession plans, meaning there are senior lawyers within their firm, and they have had no conversations about when they plan to retire, or if they want to transition their clients.”
Strong relationships developed between clients and their lawyers can last decades. Law-firm partners who are 60 or older still control at least a quarter of their firm’s revenue, according to a 2017 study of 386 U.S. firms by the Altman Weil legal-consulting firm. While executives and middle managers in many U.S. industries tend to step aside in their late 50s and 60s, the American Bar Association estimates 400,000 practicing lawyers in the United States are 62 or older.
For Cahill, having a strategic plan provides a competitive edge in recruiting that paid off when it added nine new associates in 2017. “When you tell folks coming in that there are two members of the management committee who are closer to their age than retirement age, it lets them feel their ideas might be heard better.”
Adding new lawyers reflects an improving economy after several years in which new jobs were scarce. “Since the end of the recession, over the last six or seven years, I’ve heard from several firms that they are targeting more young associates because business is good,” says John Lassiter, president of Carolina Legal Staffing in Charlotte. “This uptick in hiring is symptomatic of the economy, because their clients are healthy and need more services.”
Though not a giant with 90 attorneys, including 11 added last year, Poyner is among eastern North Carolina’s most venerable firms. Frank Spruill started it in Henderson in 1883, then moved it to Rocky Mount in the early 1900s. Over time, Spruill & Spruill acquired smaller firms and in the 1980s merged with the Raleigh law firm of Poyner, Geraghty, Hartsfield and Townsend to become Poyner & Spruill. James Poyner, one of the firm’s founders, was a two-term state senator in the 1950s who helped start mortgage lender Cameron-Brown Co., which was later acquired by First Union Corp. Fifty-six Poyner lawyers are based in downtown Raleigh, with the balance spread across three other offices including Charlotte, where it opened an office in 1988. Its clients span more than 20 different industries and tend to be small businesses and middle-market companies rather than large corporations. The average age of the firm’s lawyers is 50.
The name was later shortened to Poyner Spruill, but many North Carolinians and even some of the older partners, particularly those in Rocky Mount, still use the ampersand in their conversations.
Over the years, Poyner has had its share of well-known partners, including former Gov. Jim Hunt, who spent the eight years between his terms at the firm. Hunt, who was governor from 1977-85 and 1993-2001, later worked at much-larger Womble Carlyle (now Womble Bond Dickinson) and is now retired. Other well-known former partners include Marvin Musselwhite, who served in the state legislature; former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Phil Carlton; and Richard Thigpen, who started the Charlotte office before becoming general counsel for the Carolina Panthers. More recently, former U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre joined to head the firm’s government relations practice.
Poyner’s career track is similar to many peers. Attorneys who have worked at least seven-and-a-half years at the firm are eligible to make partner. Voting takes place in December, with the election based on business-development efforts and skill in working with and maintaining clients. While shares in the firm vary among partners, Cahill says Poyner Spruill strives for everyone’s voice to be heard, and having younger partners on the management committee furthers that objective.
“We have a general matriculation process. Lawyers who are eligible, in consultation with their section leader, will express an interest in making partner and we give them a time frame,” he says. “To the extent our management committee is a representative form of government, the younger attorneys feel they have these partners under 50 who can speak for them.”
Like many law firms, Poyner Spruill has no mandatory retirement age, which enables attorneys to practice as long as desired. Sometimes, that can be too long. In 2013, the North Carolina Bar Association established a Transitioning Lawyers Commission to counsel members who might be losing their edge and ability to competently represent their clients. The commission helps attorneys transition on their own terms, says Julie Beavers, the commission’s chair and director of attorney recruitment and professional development at Ward & Smith PA in Raleigh. “The commission provides resources for succession planning, selling law practices and dealing with cognitive concerns. The bar association has made it a priority to help aging attorneys plan for the future.”
As part of its strategic planning, Poyner also looked at how to compete effectively in the face of trends such as more competitive pricing, greater use of technology to reduce staffing costs and declining demand from larger corporate clients who are taking more legal work in-house. The firm is expanding its emphasis on employment, health and information-technology law.
“It’s a much different age in the legal world, post-recession, and a much different environment,” Cahill says. “Clients are demanding innovation and efficiency. They are looking for alternative fee arrangements, and we must stay on the cutting edge of technology,”
Succession plans are just as important for other professional-services providers, including engineers, accountants, doctors and architects.
“The best advice we can give is to honor the current relationships you have, and honor the current management, but always be looking for the next step,” he says. “There are senior business executives who are not going to be in their positions forever. They are going to be grooming someone to come in behind them to take over running the business.”