When George Butler Jr., Charles Snow, Junior O’Mara and Dan McCullen found themselves on opposite sides of an important case in 1954 — Underwood v. Knox Glass Company — with Phineas Stevens, Francis Stevens and Bob Cannada, it made sense for the attorneys to combine their practices.
Now a half-century later, Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, is one of Mississippi’s leading law firms.
“Our founding members figured if they didn’t come together immediately, they’d be fighting each other tooth and toenail for years to come,” said Steve Rosenblatt, chairman of the firm. “It’s somewhat telling that the case that brought the firm together was a landmark case, and set the standard for corporate law and the responsibility of officers and directors.”
Even with only seven members, Butler Snow was the second largest law firm in the state at the time of inception that September. It was located initially in the old Milner building and later the Petroleum Building on Pascagoula Street. From the onset, managing partner and father figure Charlie Snow laid down principles concerning how Butler Snow attorneys should conduct themselves, guidelines that remain in place today.
For example, in an early memo to the firm, Snow wrote: “We must remember at all times professionally what one does is a responsibility of all. It will come natural to all of us to remember that ours is a high-class law firm. It is the interest of each of us to do nothing to lower that standard.”
Snow set forth a hallmark of Butler Snow: “No effort should be made at any time to ascertain the amount of work each completes in fee value. None of this is a test. Such might cause dissension. All will, at all times, do their best … We never want anyone to say of us that we are cheap lawyers. But we do want everyone to say that we are the best lawyers. People don’t mind paying reasonable and fair fees for the right kind of service. We want a reputation that we always do a good job with reasonable promptness and that we deal with our clients honestly and fairly.”
The founders also recognized the foundation for success should include a client-first philosophy and the adoption of a compensation system structured to assure that clients’ interests are not compromised by the competing financial interests of individual attorneys.
“Many law firms emphasize individuality, autonomous profit centers and ‘eat-what-you-kill’ compensations systems, all of which fosters internal competition, often to the detriment of the client,” said Rosenblatt. “We place our emphasis upon a group identity and upon cooperative teamwork among our firm’s members.”
For instance, billable hours reports are distributed to the attorney, firm chairman and department chairman only if the attorney is outside a range of monthly guidelines “to shift the lawyer’s focus from billing hours to representing the client,” he said. “When we hire attorneys, we look for team players with a servant’s heart even though it makes our job of recruiting more difficult … with a narrower slice of the pie.”
As evidence of cooperative teamwork, 21 attorneys from Butler Snow were recently listed in The Best Lawyers in America, 2003-2004, appearing in 15 categories. The law firm was ranked first in Mississippi for overall excellence in Chambers USA, America’s Leading Business Lawyers 2003-2004. Seven lawyers were ranked across three practice areas.
In 1975, when Rosenblatt joined the firm as its 22nd attorney, Butler Snow relocated to the Deposit Guaranty Plaza. The entire operation took up space on two-thirds of one floor. Today, about 100 lawyers reside on floors 13 to 18, with support staff located on the seventh floor.
Clarifying the firm’s vision
In 1998, the firm added offices in Memphis’ Crescent Center and the Gulf Coast’s Whitney Bank Building. Each office now has 38 and 11 attorneys, respectively. That year, 17 attorneys were added to the roster, including five tax attorneys from Magruder Montgomery, six attorneys from Galloway & Galloway and six public finance and bond attorneys from Crosthwaite Terney. In 2001, the firm hired six lawyers from Garrison Morris, specializing in intellectual property and technology.
Overall, Butler Snow has 149 attorneys and a support staff of 275.
“One of our greatest challenges, and we’re making significant progress on it, is clarifying the vision of the firm as we grow,” said Rosenblatt. “About six years ago, we went through a competitive process when Baxter International, a Fortune 250 client, hired a new general counsel who wanted to whittle down the number of law firms he dealt with. We went through a preferred provider selection process, where the number of law firms was narrowed from 130 to 20, and those law firms were invited to compete for their business. They asked us a lot of probing questions and made us look at ourselves in a way we hadn’t before. We were chosen as one of four; the other law firms were located in Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Just being selected among those global firms gave us a vision for who we were and where we were going.”
Developing wide-ranging expertise
Initially, Butler Snow attorneys were generalists, “forming a corporation in the morning and going to court in the afternoon,” said Rosenblatt, with a chuckle.
“From the start, the leadership said they didn’t want work to go out of state,” he said. “Our representation of the Cumberland Telephone Company was probably our first specialty. George Butler and his late father had represented the company going back to the 1910’s. It’s always been a regulated industry and has always taken some expertise. (Among the firm’s significant clients: AT&T, BellSouth and its predecessors.) Our second specialty was probably transportation (representing Miller Transporters) because, used to, if trucking companies wanted to change their route or rates, they had to go before the ICC and get a certificate. We expanded that concept to tax and other issues, really trying to anticipate the needs of our clients in this market.”
Now, Butler Snow attorneys have expertise in 47 specialties. Significant practice areas added in the last six years include healthcare regulatory, public finance, governmental affairs, intellectual property, agricultural law, international trade, corporate criminal law and immigration. Bill Gillon, former general counsel of the National Cotton Council, recently joined the Memphis office, specializing in agricultural law and World Trade Organization litigation. James Tucker, formerly with the U.S. Attorney’s office, recently joined the firm’s corporate criminal law practice.
The seeds of Butler Snow’s successful litigation practice began in the late 1970s, when Larry Franck tried a case in Hinds County Circuit Court for Uniroyal (Stahl-Urban v. Uniroyal) on a products liability claim, and the civil trial lasted an unprecedented two months.
“Our pharmaceutical and medical device defense has been a substantial portion of the firm’s practice at least 15 years,” said Rosenblatt. “The Janssen case was the first entry on the litigation side in the national arena. It would’ve been easy for the company to bring in a high-powered attorney from Los Angeles or New York, but the client stuck with us and we had our lawyer (Christy Jones) trying the case. I think it gave the firm the confidence that it could compete at any level.”
On February 19, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in the case of Janssen Pharmaceutica Inc. v. Armond, that the joinder of 56 plaintiffs who allegedly took Propulsid was improper and unfairly prejudiced the rights of Janssen Pharmaceutica Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and the physicians named as defendants in the lawsuit.
“It’s going to be a landmark case,” said Rosenblatt. “As much as tort reform has helped in Mississippi courts, that case turned the tide, and helped level the playing field.”
Franck’s 1972 article in the Mississippi Law Journal on the importance of court-mandated rules of procedure was a driving force in Mississippi’s adoption of modern rules of civil procedure, which replaced archaic statutory procedures, Rosenblatt pointed out.
Franck served on the Mississippi Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Rules of Civil Practice and Procedure for 21 years, including seven as chairman, and was instrumental in the adoption of the model rules of evidence by the state’s highest court. For this service, he received The Mississippi Bar’s Award of Merit and the American Board of Trial Advocates’ Civil Justice Award.
“We’re the beneficiaries of Larry’s far-sightedness,” said Rosenblatt.
Other significant milestones for the firm include taking National Car Rental public, facilitating the growth of McRae’s from a single department store to a regional chain of stores and then selling McRae’s to Saks, Inc., and the sale of Jitney Jungle Stores to a New York investment firm.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.