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O.C. Law Firms Rate Highly in Client Survey : Report: Four are praised for attentive service to big companies and reasonable prices.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four small Orange County law firms are helping to define a new kind of legal practice that pays attention to the needs of corporate clients and doesn’t nickel-and-dime them over fees, according to a survey by American Lawyer magazine.

The four are among 604 nationwide that were cited by the clients themselves for providing good service, quality and value, according to a first-of-a-kind study published this month by the magazine.

The local firms on the list are not well-known behemoths, though many of the partners came from larger law firms. They are Case, Knowlson, Mobley, Burnett & Luber in Irvine; Hanley & Patch in Irvine; Payne & Fears in Irvine, and Shernoff & Scott in Newport Beach.

Small though they may be--the largest has only 14 lawyers--the local firms represent some of the biggest corporations and their subsidiaries. Companies like Rockwell International Corp., Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Corp., BP America Inc., Irvine Co. and First American Title Insurance Co. use the firms on a regular basis.

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The report, based on a survey of 400 in-house lawyers working at medium-size and large companies, found that corporations in the 1990s are demanding value for their money. And, in the past two years, they have generally found that value at smaller legal practices.

Corporate clients are increasingly turned off by large law firms that pass client cases down through a number of young associates and charge clients for every minute on the telephone and every page photocopied, said Karen Dillon, editor of the trade magazine.

About two-thirds of the top picks by in-house lawyers were small firms, and those surveyed explained why.

“The themes were similar: price and service,” Dillon said. “It was the small things that made people happy, like returning calls promptly, being available by phone on weekends, dealing with the partner in charge of the case and not always being passed on to young associates and not charging every time a client calls with a question.”

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Today’s lawyers need good client relations, she said, because “the days of giving nothing away for free are going.”

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Partners at the four Orange County firms on the list couldn’t agree more.

Providing good customer service should be an “inevitable” requirement at law firms, said Gary Mobley, who helped to form Case, Knowlson in 1987 from the Century City entertainment law firm of Wyman, Bautzer, Kuckel & Silbert.

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One way to provide that service, he said, is to make partners more accountable by breaking down the long-time ratio of two or three associates for every partner. At Case, Knowlson, there are 12 partners and only two associates, leading managing partner Michael Burnett to quip: “We don’t have to worry about delegating work.”

The idea, Mobley said, is to use experienced lawyers who can handle matters efficiently. Associates, with their generally high salaries, simply aren’t cost-effective, he said, and the firm markets itself as one that does “big-firm quality work but at more reasonable prices.”

Insurance companies, which make up about 10% of Case, Knowlson’s business, were the clients praising the firm. American Lawyer would not disclose, however, what clients said about individual law firms.

Clients praised Hanley & Patch for its trial work. Partner William B. Hanley, who did not know about the survey, said he figures that the eight-lawyer firm’s attention to service is paying off.

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Not only are corporate clients dealing with Hanley or partner Ryan M. Patch, but the corporate lawyers are involved in the law firm’s decisions about how to proceed with cases.

“Such decisions can create costs,” Hanley said. “I don’t take 25 depositions and come back and say, ‘This is what I’ve done.’ It is their lawsuit. They may go through the witness list and decide we need to depose only 10 of the 25, and we discuss that.”

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Large law firms with five or six associates on any one case don’t typically work so closely with corporate clients, he said. But the big firms are beginning to make adjustments. They no longer charge more for photocopying, for instance, than what it costs them, he said.

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At Payne & Fears--and, yes, the 14 lawyers there have heard how appropriate the name is for a law firm--there is a “strong emphasis” on client service, said James L. Payne, who co-founded the firm three years ago. The firm prides itself on being flexible in both its billing and its handling of cases to try to meet client expectations.

Payne said his firm, and many like it, are proof that American Lawyer’s founder, Steven Brill, was wrong when he warned in the 1980s that small firms had to consolidate and grow or they would die.

“Now, instead of a consolidation, there’s a resurgence in smaller specialized boutique practices,” Payne said.

Payne & Fears concentrates on two areas: labor and employment law, and business litigation. Its trial work includes representing companies as plaintiffs in so-called insurance bad-faith cases, which are lawsuits against insurers who refuse to provide the coverage promised under their policies. Its insurance work earned the mention on American Lawyer’s list.

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Perhaps the nation’s premier plaintiff’s lawyer in bad-faith cases is William Shernoff in Claremont. He helped to develop that area of the law while representing average citizens unable to take on huge insurance companies.

Shernoff and partner Robert K. Scott applied what they developed to situations in which insurers failed to defend corporations or pay their claims under insurance policies. Scott, who runs the Newport Beach operation, thinks his clients have to like the value they get because he works only on a contingency-fee basis, which means he gets paid only if he wins.

The usually casually clad Scott, with five associates, has no particular system for providing good service. “If I don’t like the client or the case, I don’t take it,” he said. But he said he does look for a “righteous” case, a likable client and a situation that caused the client some harm.

“The hot area for bad-faith litigation in the ‘90s is business insurance,” Scott said. “Banks can now start selling insurance, and with their record, that’s full employment for me until I’m 85.”

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Clients’ Choice

Four Orange County law firms are among those cited in an informal survey by American Lawyer magazine for service, quality and value:

Partners, Name Location Formed associates Case, Knowlson, Mobely, Irvine 1987 12, 2 Burnett & Luber Hanley & Patch Irvine 1992 2, 8 Payne & Fears Irvine 1992 5, 9 Shernoff & Scott Newport Beach 1989 1, 5

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Name Managing partner Case, Knowlson, Mobely, Michael Burnett Burnett & Luber Hanley & Patch Ryan Patch Payne & Fears James Payne Shernoff & Scott Robert K. Scott

Sources: Individual firms; Researched by VALERIE WILLIAMS-SANCHEZ / Los Angeles Times


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