Some lawyers like to be close to the courthouse; others like to be as far away as possible from a necktie.
Some want the prestige of a tall building in the middle of a city’s commercial district; others prefer the practicality of easy parking.
A law firm’s building and location declare something eloquent about the firm’s mission. But they also deliver a less legal message, one of personality.
Dozens of law firms are in Mecklenburg County; the six visited below are within a 20-mile radius, but their attitudes and environments can seem a continent apart.
The mill shouts Davidson, and no tie required
Davidson is north of Charlotte, about 20 miles from the commercial center of Mecklenburg County.
While the damming of the Catawba River at Cowans Ford Dam 50 years ago and the consequent creation of Lake Norman have brought explosive growth and development to communities like Davidson along the eastern shore of the lake, the place still retains the small-town feel.
The Davidson Mill building is part of that heritage, said Bob McIntosh, founder of the McIntosh Law Firm.
The firm moved into the old Davidson Cotton Mill in late 2000 and undertook significant renovations of the space. McIntosh said he is a member of the investment group that owns the building, but the group is separate from the law firm.
“We chose this space because of the uniqueness of the building and the tie it has to the local community,” McIntosh said.
“The textile industry in rural North Carolina is part of our heritage,” McIntosh said, “and this is an old architecturally significant building locally. We’re privileged to be a steward of the building and a steward of the history of this community.
“We want to be a part of the fabric of Davidson’s present, just as the mill was a part of the fabric of its past,” McIntosh said.
The firm is a general practice, handling all aspects of transactional matters and litigation, with the exception of domestic and criminal cases. Lawyers in the firm handle cases throughout the Carolinas, and McIntosh said the firm’s marketing footprint covers Statesville to the north down to Rock Hill, S.C., to the south.
McIntosh said he has no desire to move the firm to uptown Charlotte.
“We feel like we provide just as good of legal services here as in uptown,” McIntosh said. “The difference is, we don’t have to dress like we’re uptown. Right now my necktie is lying in the back seat of my hybrid Mariner. That’s as close as I need to be to it.”
McIntosh said that because his firm’s practice is not courthouse-dependent, the distance to the county seat is no hardship. And when someone has a case on the courthouse calendar, others in the firm will send documents with that lawyer.
That practice, McIntosh said, encourages preparation and multiple uses of common resources.
“A lot of thought goes into your nest,” McIntosh said. “I spend most of my time here, and I love being here.”
Working high above the city conveys pride, prestige
Top-tier lawyers at top-tier international firm Katten Muchin Rosenman sit high atop the Charlotte skyline, on the 28th and 29th floors of Charlotte’s newest skyscraper, the Duke Energy Center.
Being an uptown law firm in one of the premier uptown skyscrapers carries a degree of prestige of which Katten managing partner Dan Huffenus is proud.
“We have always been uptown,” Huffenus told Lawyers Weekly, “and I expect that we’ll always want to be here.”
Huffenus said Katten’s clients expect that a law firm of its stature “would have well-appointed space in a Class A building.”
But the quality of the firm’s service, he added, is far more important to clients than where the firm’s lawyers work.
In Charlotte, Katten’s key practices are real estate (especially finance), commercial litigation, bankruptcy and corporate matters.
Huffenus said Charlotte clients appreciate the convenience of its uptown location. The desire to be uptown, he said, is related to proximity to clients, restaurants and cultural amenities such as the Mint Museum, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Harvey B. Gannt Center for African-American Arts and Culture.
For an uptown office, he said, “The best facilities are in the newer high-rise locations, and the newer high-rises have the best technology – including green technology – and amenities that our clients and employees appreciate.”
One floor, ground level, changing neighborhood = nontraditional
Not all firms choose high-rise homes, and not all are uptown.
Charlotte attorney Bill Powers, whose law firm is in the Camp Greene neighborhood in what he calls (with a laugh) “downtown” Charlotte, said his office sits in what was recently considered one of the city’s most dangerous areas.
“You wouldn’t drive through this neighborhood day or night a few years ago,” Powers said. But when his firm, Powers McCartan, moved in just as the economy began to tank, he said, the neighborhood was starting to change.
Charlotte School of Law had recently moved its campus to the area, and developers saw Camp Greene as “the new Dilworth,” Powers said, a reference to an affluent nearby Charlotte neighborhood.
“We get more bang for the buck with this space,” Powers said of the 7,000-square-foot, one-story brick building that was previously a lithographic printing business.
Powers said the firm owns the two adjacent lots – now vacant – east toward Berryhill Road. The homes on those lots were among hundreds of crack houses Powers said were razed in recent years between Berryhill Road and Freedom Drive to the north and east.
“We’re within a few miles of both interstates [I-77 and I-85],” Powers said. “We tell clients we’re in Charlotte, near downtown, our office is easy to find, and parking is free and plentiful.”
Powers said the prestige of an uptown location is not a big deal to him.
“We’ve always been a nontraditional law firm, and that is one reason we looked for space in a nontraditional area,” he said.
“We were never interested in mahogany desks and greenback leather chairs and yellow legal pads, not that there is anything wrong with all that,” Powers said.
“We’re interested in what we provide within these four walls, not what these four walls look like on the outside.”
Leaving uptown for the periphery says practicality
The prestige associated with an uptown location is something that never entered Pender McElroy’s mind in 1984 when he and his partners at the general practice firm of James McElroy & Diehl left their space in the Home Federal Building on Tryon Street and moved to the firm’s current location at 600 S. College Street.
It’s a moderate-length extension cord away from the Duke Energy Center.
“We wanted to have our own property,” McElroy said. Since its founding in 1959, the firm had been leasing space in uptown towers.
“We felt like we wanted to have control of the way we laid out the space, and to have control over how we built, rebuilt and reconfigured things,” he said. Choosing to place the firm in the three-story, whitewashed brick building that was formerly the Query-Spivey-McGee Hardware Store was, McElroy said, “strictly related to practical issues.”
One of those issues, he said, echoing Powers, was the availability of free parking. “Parking was important to us. Parking is tight here [in uptown]. We try to make parking as little of an issue to clients as possible.”
McElroy also cited easy accessibility to the firm from I-77, I-277 and I-85 as a reason for choosing the location.
“We’re on the periphery of uptown,” he said, “which makes it a little easier to find us than having to go into the congestion of the square.”
The square is the dead-center of Charlotte – the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets – the fulcrum from which development sprang even before colonial settlement, where two Native-American trading paths crossed.
The dignified Queen Ann Style ‘screams law firm’
Arnold & Smith’s law firm is about the same distance from the square as James McElroy & Diehl’s is, but when partners Matt Arnold and Brad Smith chose their location, they were swayed by sentiment.
“This house is a piece of history,” Arnold told Lawyers Weekly, referring to the firm’s space in the Carr House at the corner of McDowell and Fifth Streets in Charlotte’s First Ward.
Like Powers and McElroy, Arnold said, he and Smith grew weary of leasing space.
“We wanted to own our space,” Arnold said, “and to be able to design things the way we liked.”
He said that when he and Smith were leasing space on nearby Seventh Street, they used to pass the stately Carr House on the way to and from the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, the column-topped, hulking 10-story stone and marble structure at McDowell and Fourth Streets.
Arnold said that when he and Smith learned the prior owner was interested in selling the Carr House, they moved quickly to complete the purchase.
The Carr House was built in 1904, at the close of the Victorian era, in the Queen Ann style that was consistent with structures in that part of the city. Most have long since been swept away by modern development.
“In my view, it’s the idyllic small Southern law firm building,” Arnold said. “It is an incredibly unique building in the middle of a booming city that, to my eyes, screams law firm.”
The house was placed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The space offers more than aesthetic appeal to lawyers like Arnold and Smith. Arnold is a civil litigator, handling mostly domestic and business cases, while Smith handles mainly traffic and criminal matters. Both are in court frequently, so finding a space close to the courthouse was important to them.
And the cost of owning the space wasn’t dramatically different from what the firm would have spent leasing space in the same area, Arnold said.
“When we layered the idea of investing in uptown real estate on top of comparable costs,” Arnold said, “from our perspective, it was a no-brainer.”
Even though his office is in Charlotte’s uptown, Arnold said the prestige attached to uptown firms isn’t as significant as in prior generations.
“Practically speaking, to be able to walk to the courthouse – and to be able to send staff to file documents without having to worry about fighting traffic and parking and paying for parking – that really is the plus of this location,” Arnold said.
A Dilworth pearl in what was once a suburb
Johnston Allison Hord, which will celebrate its centennial next year, has been on Morehead Street for two decades, in what once was considered a Charlotte suburb, the affluent Dilworth neighborhood south of uptown.
It moved into its square, red-brick and stone four-story structure almost five years ago. The building’s design – with long windows, columns along the side and a fourth-floor terrace – was the product of recommendations by members of the firm, which leases the building from the property owner.
Darrell Shealy, a firm partner, describes Morehead as “a prestigious location,” but prestige was not as important a factor, in terms of firm location, as client accessibility and parking. “Our clients love it that they can pull right up to the door,” Shealy said. “There are never any issues with parking.”
And if lawyers and clients need to go uptown, they are only a few minutes away.
“We have a general civil business practice primarily representing closely-owned small-to-midsize companies,” Shealy said. “A significant part of our practice is litigation or conflict-oriented.”
The almost 20 lawyers on staff who are litigators – about half of the lawyers in the firm – want to be close to the courthouse.
Shealy said uptown skyscraper firms cater to a different kind of clientele. “They do work for the major banks and for larger, publicly held companies,” he said.
Johnston Allison Hord, he said, caters to smaller local businesses and individuals with roots as deep in the community as the law firm’s roots.
“We’ve been around for almost one-hundred years,” Shealy said, “and we moved into this space with the idea that we would stay here for a very long time into the future.”