George Soule and Melissa Stull, partners in Soule & Stull since 2014 and large firm veterans, have found that small is beautiful.
While a 2019 market analysis by Citi Private Bank found that the law business is moving toward very large partnerships and several Twin Cities firms have followed the merger route, Soule and Stull have resisted the trend.
Soule, 65, a graduate of Harvard Law School, was a founder of Bowman and Brooke. He served from 1999 to 2003 as chairman of the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection. A member of the White Earth Nation, he also is past president of the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association.
Stull, 38, a graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law, focuses on product-liability defense and represents equipment manufacturers.
Q: What is driving the consolidation trend?
Soule: Firms think they have to keep up with the competition to remain viable. But big firms are not the only ones doing solid business in this market. Our success proves bigger isn’t always better. Those of us who can provide big firm experience with the highly personalized service of a small office are doing extremely well in this market. We’re happy to announce we will not be merging with any large, national firms.
I was a founder of Bowman & Brooke, a midsize national firm of about 200 lawyers with an office in Minneapolis. We started with 14 nationwide in 1985. It was time for a change for me. It was time for a more flexible, practice-focused small firm as opposed to committees and reports and all the drama of a large firm. Melissa for years had been my de facto partner at Bowman. We have some of the same clients, in addition to others. One of our largest is Vermeer Corp. of Pella, Iowa.
Q: Is there research to back up your observation?
Stull: There is evidence that the current market favors not only the biggest firms but also the smallest — provided they have a strong reputation and brand. That tracks directly with our success. We have established a thriving national practice on a small platform in our five-attorney firm. That doesn’t include retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson and retired Hennepin County Judge John McShane. They primarily do mediation and arbitration work. Two partners, three attorneys and a total of nine on staff, including the judges.
Soule: We’ve seen the trend of national firms merging with the medium-size firms. Also groups of lawyers are breaking off from large firms here and starting Minneapolis offices for other national firms. Probably six or seven of those in the last several years.
Q: Can you do as good of a job in your practice areas as a huge firm for less money?
Stull: We provide big firm experience with the personalized service of a small office. Our clients know that when they hire Soule & Stull, George and Melissa are working on their cases. We’re nimble, efficient and accessible. We have deep expertise in our practice areas and our rates are very reasonable. One of our clients said it best: “Small firm, big results.” We recently tried its case to a major defense verdict.
Soule: We have lots of trial and litigation experience and expertise. Over 70 trials in 20 states. Many big firm lawyers rarely go to trial. Our platform allows great flexibility in rates and fee structures. In our key practice areas of product liability, commercial litigation and alternative-dispute resolution, our firm goes toe to toe with the biggest. Our billing rates are a fraction of the partner rates at the large national-practice firms. Our lawyers are $200 to $400 an hour. We don’t have that many people. Typically, on a big case, it's Melissa and me and a paralegal. Those are two factors that generally make our bills more economical. Our overhead is also much lower.
Q: Anything else?
Soule: We form partnerships with other firms when we serve as national counsel in their locales. And sometimes we partner as local counsel with larger national firms when they have cases in which they want our experience and local expertise. And with continued consolidation in the market, even more firms will be seeking referrals due to client or case conflicts of interest. That presents great opportunities for small, independent and successful firms like ours in the coming years.