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Turf War: Client scarcity fuels battle between rural, urban lawyers

Sylvia Adcock//October 1, 2010

Turf War: Client scarcity fuels battle between rural, urban lawyers

Sylvia Adcock//October 1, 2010


 By SYLVIA ADCOCK, Staff Writer

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Smithfield attorneys watch as lawyers from Raleigh walk into the Johnston County Courthouse with dozens of traffic-ticket shucks in their hands. In Union County, attorneys are feeling the squeeze as law firms in Charlotte take on more personal-injury cases. And in Pender County, the local bar is trying to change the rules for the indigent-defender list to keep Wilmington-based lawyers from signing up.

Turf battles among attorneys are nothing new. But with today’s financial pressures, some lawyers in urban areas may be quicker to look for business in outlying counties, according to interviews with attorneys across the state.

And the tussle for business extends to practice areas as well, with some lawyers saying they see more specialists extending themselves into areas outside their concentration instead of making referrals.

The situation is leaving some lawyers frustrated.

Jason Coats, who practices in Smithfield with Wilkins, Wellons & Coats, said he’s seen a more aggressive push from attorneys in the Raleigh area who send out letters to recipients of traffic tickets in Johnston County, often quoting prices that undercut what the local lawyers have traditionally charged.

“They take up a good bit of our business,” Coats said. On “disposition day” in district court, he said, when hundreds of traffic cases are processed, “the out-of-county firms will have 150 cases. They can keep an assistant D.A. occupied for a long time while we’re waiting for our three or four.”

Attorneys in Union County outside Charlotte express similar frustrations. Mecklenburg County lawyers are all over the airwaves, pushing their services not just for traffic tickets but also for other areas of law.

“We are competing with them, and it is making it harder. It is hurting us,” said Monroe attorney Trey Robison, a partner with Caldwell, Helder, Helms & Robison, the oldest firm in Union County.

“It’s not just traffic tickets. … It’s been an encroachment in all areas of law – civil, domestic, criminal, real estate,” he said.

Robison said on a Monday calendar call at the Union County courthouse, three or four in-county attorneys will be waiting along with about two dozen from Charlotte. “I ascribe that to the fact that they can’t make enough of a living in Charlotte,” he said.

“That’s exactly right,” said Charlotte attorney H.M. Whitesides Jr., a solo practitioner who specializes in criminal matters. Whitesides said that lately he is also more likely to find himself sitting in court with lawyers who don’t normally do criminal work.

“What I see is lawyers who I know to be very good corporate lawyers or good personal-injury lawyers showing up in criminal court,” he said. “The only reason I can give for that … is the fact that they don’t want to refer the client out.”

In times past when the economy was better, attorneys who worked on civil matters would usually refer a client who was facing a criminal charge to a criminal lawyer, according to Whitesides.

“I used to get a lot more referrals from transactional lawyers and corporate lawyers than I do now,” he said.

 With the number of attorneys increasing at a faster rate than the client base, the squeeze is inevitable.

Whitesides said he and a colleague walked into the Mecklenburg County courthouse on a recent Monday and saw a line of hundreds of people, all representing themselves, stretching around the lobby waiting to get into administrative court. “The other lawyer said, ‘That was our client base.'”

The office of Indigent Defense Services, the state agency that oversees public-defender offices, also sees evidence of attorneys competing for business.

Tom Maher, director of IDS, said the issues come to his attention when the bar in one county or judicial district attempts to change the rules to keep lawyers from other geographic areas off the indigent-defender list.

“One of the big issues is turf battles,” he said.

The rules involving indigent-defender lists are governed by a committee of each local bar. If the rules are changed, IDS has to approve it.

When a local bar sends in a plan to change its rules to keep some attorneys off the list, “some of it is tied to legitimate concerns about the quality of service, and some is tied to protecting their turf,” Maher said. As far as the IDS is concerned, the quality of legal services provided is the only issue.

In Pender County, the local bar is attempting to change its rules to make clear that only lawyers with a primary practice in the county can be appointed to represent indigent defendants.

Solo practitioner Renee Williamson said the move came after the establishment of a public defender’s office in adjacent New Hanover County cut down on work available to criminal lawyers in Wilmington. When the Wilmington attorneys came to Pender to put their names on the indigent-defender list, Williamson and others decided to begin the process of the changing the rules.

Williamson said an important issue is the quality of service to the defendants. Out-of-county attorneys don’t visit the jail for conferences as often, she said, and cases have not moved along as quickly. In a few criminal cases, she said, the defendants were held in jail awaiting trial so long that they served more time waiting in jail than their sentence.

Chip Rodgers, who now practices in Wilmington but started out in Burgaw, said he is concerned that the encroachment of urban attorneys into rural areas will make it that much harder to establish a small-town practice, something many young lawyers are being advised to do today.

“I can honestly tell somebody that it is not a good place to practice law,” he said of Burgaw, Pender’s county seat. “There are too many people coming in from other places. If you don’t have any experience, … it’s going to be very difficult to get business.”

Some of the smaller firms are being pressed by trends that have been in the works for some time, said John Lassiter, executive director of Charlotte-based Carolina Legal Staffing. Insurance-carrier defense work used to be spread across geographic areas, but is now concentrated at fewer firms as the carriers push for lower fees.

And with all clients becoming more fee-conscious, the larger firm can often win, he said. In real estate matters, larger firms can undercut the price of a solo practitioner by using teams of paralegals to do title searches to free up the attorney to do more closings.

Sometimes the attorneys outside urban areas are competing with bigger advertising budgets.

The ads from firms in Mecklenburg County are “pretty fancy,” said Frederick Kraus, a partner with Schneider & Kraus in Concord. Attorneys in Cabarrus County, where Concord is situated, are seeing more personal-injury cases go to lawyers in Charlotte, who sometimes send out mailers that include DVDs to accident victims, he said.

“Not many lawyers out here can invest in sending out mailers like that,” Kraus said.

As for Coats of Smithfield, he’s not going to change the standard fee he has charged for years.

“People call me and say, ‘I got a letter, and this guy’s charging half that.’ If you’re shopping on price, you get what you pay for,” he said. “I’m still a traditionalist and I believe the best advertising is word of mouth.”


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