As the needs of Sandy Swartzberg’s Milwaukee south side law firm, Swartzberg & Duggan, grew beyond the capacity of its eight-lawyer team, law firm merged with DeWitt Ross & Stevens Law Firm last year.
Swartzberg now heads the new DeWitt Ross & Stevens office in Brookfield with 13 attorneys.
DeWitt Ross & Stevens, based in Madison, is boldly entering the Milwaukee-area market.
Swartzberg recently discussed the merger and the outlook for the combined law firm with Small Business Times reporter Elizabeth Geldermann. The following are excerpts from the interview.
SBT: It is unusual for a Madison law firm to expand east in to the Milwaukee market. It usually has worked the other way around. What prompted the decision for DeWitt Ross & Stevens?
Swartzberg: DeWitt Ross & Stevens is a merger between a combination of the Ross & Stevens, DeWitt Porter and Swartzberg & Duggan firms for the clientele. The merger was for the benefit of the clients, so they could get the expertise that was needed for the ever-differentiating marketplace.
DeWitt wanted a Milwaukee office because they are considered to be a statewide firm, and they wanted to say to the clients that they are dealing with in Milwaukee that, yes, we have a Milwaukee office. It is all about being able to bring the right resources to your client, because if you don’t do that, they will go somewhere else.
The area between Milwaukee and Madison is growing very quickly, so a firm that really wants to service its clients needs to be positioned along that corridor.
SBT: How is the company positioning itself in the Milwaukee market?
Swartzberg: One of the things that I think makes me different from most lawyers is that I work very hard to bring all of the resources I can find to my clients to make them successful. For instance, I have a client that was having financial problems from the tech boom-bust, and they were having problems getting reorganized. I actually got another one of my clients to get in there and be a part-time CFO and help the company get reorganized. I have put a lot of deals together like that.
It’s all part of being, what I call myself as a joke, a value-added lawyer. In today’s marketplace, in order to fully serve your client, you need to refer your client to other resources or you need to have those resources in-house.
SBT: Are there some specific practice areas, some voids you plan to fill in the market?
Swartzberg: DeWitt is not like most law firms. Out of the 80-plus lawyers at DeWitt, only about 12 are associates. The associates are only given work that is appropriate for the associate. This means for the client that they are going to have somebody who is doing the work most of the time who really has the qualification, and they are not going to have their file passed around.
And the climate at DeWitt is what I would call very entrepreneurial. The lawyers think of themselves as entrepreneurs because they work with objective compensation. The work that they do is purely based upon how you do as a lawyer, how much business you bring in and how much you work on it.
The advantage for the client is that that keeps that lawyer interested because his compensation is directly tied to the client’s. It is purely the American enterprise system.
Also a lot of lawyers at DeWitt have experience with small firms, where they look at it as they do it and do it as expeditiously as the can, where it is less expensive for the client.
Almost all clients have a very personal relationship with some lawyer in the firm. We understand that our bread and butter is made on client service and that is what we are about.
SBT: Over time, what will be the strengths of the Brookfield office?
Swartzberg: We want this office to be the hub for the southeastern region of Wisconsin. We will probably double in size over the next few years. We plan on opening another office on the south side and more throughout the state, like Ozaukee or Mequon in the future.
But you have to do it slowly, because it is a matter of keeping the quality. We want people with high levels of expertise.
SBT: Is Waukesha County becoming saturated with attorneys?
Swartzberg: No, no. A lot of the big firms are opening offices in Waukesha County because Waukesha County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. But it is not just Waukesha County, it’s Washington County, it’s all around. The demand for service is increasing as the number of small businesses continues to increase. I don’t think the market is saturated at all.
SBT: Are there key legal issues facing businesses in 2004?
Swartzberg: Well, there are a series of changes in the tax act, which give advantages and can change how legal structure is put together.
There are all sorts of pressures on businesses because of the rising health care costs. Businesses are going to have to figure out a way to keep their health care costs down. And I’m not saying lawyers can do it all, but there are some methods that employers can use to handle those issues, and they need to band together to handle them.
SBT: What areas of employment law seem to be raising the most questions from your clients?
Swartzberg: It’s not a new question, but it continues to be a problem – what do you do if you have an employee that has a drug or alcohol problem? When can you fire them? How do you go about either getting rid of them or helping them?
You try to help an employee and get rid of their problem, and you may be accused of firing them because they have a problem.
Labor unions aren’t as active as they used to be, but there is a lot of labor law that still applies to you even if you don’t have a union.
Jan. 9, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee