Vicki Hogue-Davies 2014-03-07 11:11:09
More than 20 years before Utah became the country’s 45th state, Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall & McCarthy, P.C. was already busy advising clients. Founded in 1874 and located in Salt Lake City with additional offices in Ogden and Las Vegas, the firm provides legal services to regional, national and international clients. It has 50 full-time attorneys and part-time counsel working in a wide variety of practice areas. The attorneys are supported by paralegals, patent clerks, patent agents and office staff. “We have practice areas that are particularly strong,” says Gregory Williams, the firm’s president. “The majority of our attorneys are commercial litigators. We also have very substantial estate planning, intellectual property, business transactions, banking and finance, energy and natural resources, and real estate practices. These are the largest components of what we do.” Additionally, through Van Cott’s membership in Lex Mundi, an international network of independent premier law firms throughout the world, its business transaction practice has a “fairly substantial international flavor to it,” says Tacy Hartman, a shareholder and board member. Van Cott is the organization’s exclusive member firm from Utah. “Membership allows us to be able to reach out to almost any jurisdiction in the world for legal help when we need it, and we frequently do,” says Stephen Swindle, a past president of Van Cott and past chair of Lex Mundi. “We reach out to other firms in Lex Mundi to refer matters and to get legal advice. It is very beneficial to us and our clients.” Firm Legacy Also benefiting clients, according to the attorneys, is the firm’s legacy as a trusted legal adviser. “I think what drove the success of the firm, and what still drives it today for that matter, is very well-educated attorneys, who are passionate about the law and have a huge concern for the affairs of their clients,” Swindle says. “If you read through some of our firm’s history, in stories about Mr. Van Cott, who was never referred to by his first name, the important thing always seems to be that he was such a trusted adviser to so many people. “I know it is a process and sometimes takes years in practice to develop that ability and trust, but it is really important historically and it is important now,” he continues. The firm began as Bennett, Harkness and Kirkpatrick and has undergone several name changes throughout its history. It gained its current moniker of Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall and McCarthy in 1948. “Utah was still a territory when the firm was founded,” Swindle says. “Law firms at that time were not big. Based on my knowledge, lawyers would often associate with one another in sort of loose arrangements to handle particular matters or transactions, but would not remain associated longterm. Partnerships usually lasted a short time, but in some cases lasted longer.” The firm held its original name for 16 years, until 1890 when it changed to Bennett, Marshall and Bradley, which lasted for 10 years. Around 1900, George Sutherland joined the firm, which changed its name to Bennett, Harkness, Howat, Sutherland and Van Cott. Sutherland became a U. S. senator in 1905 and a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1922. “An interesting note is that the firm’s John A. Marshall was a grand nephew of the famous U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall,” Williams says. Some early significant cases include the firm’s representation of the executors of Brigham Young’s estate, who were dealing with claims from both Young’s heirs and the Mormon church. The firm also successfully represented U. S. Senator Reed Smoot in attempts to unseat him related to his high-ranking position in the Mormon church. “Bread and butter” clients for Van Cott in its earlier years included mining companies, railroads, banks, telegraph and telephone companies, local merchants and oil and gas companies. “I think the next significant industry for the firm, in the mid part of the 20th century, was when Van Cott became involved in a lot of ski resort development in Park City,” Hartman says. “We are still involved in that development.” During the firm’s many years in business, it has seen economic downturns and regrowth spurts in the intermountain area, including major changes in the Utah legal market. However, Van Cott has remained competitive and strong and has flourished through the decades. Modern Law Firm Today, Van Cott represents clients ranging from publicly traded corporations to individuals. The firm often uses a team-based approach involving attorneys and support staff with different areas of knowledge, depending upon the transaction or litigation matter being handled. This approach increases efficiency to help ensure that clients are well-represented at reasonable cost. “We want to be extremely efficient with clients,” Hartman says. “We try to staff cases, as I think many law firms would, with a supervising attorney and then bring in people at lower billing rates to do a lot of the legwork. Obviously, some matters that are more complex can’t be dealt with like that, so we try to sit down with clients up front, tell them what we think will be required, how it is likely to go so their expectations are in line with what we think needs to be done to get them results.” According to Hartman, the firm also uses a synergistic approach in working with its clients. She points to the firm’s tri-yearly magazine, which is distributed to clients and friends of the firm. The magazine provides legal tips, profiles attorneys and highlights Van Cott’s clients and their companies and organizations. “We have a Canadian client who specializes in creating technology driven custom walls and interiors,” she says. “In one issue, we had the client provide a special feature on going green in that respect … because that is what this client specializes in; they even sell walls with green plants growing out of the walls. They drafted that article to get their ideas across to the general public in our magazine. That is the collaborative approach I think we try to foster. It makes for good long relationships.” This approach is not only for working with clients; the firm’s internal culture is also based on a collaborative environment. “Internally, it is also about cooperation, trying to help each other succeed, and carry on the firm’s tradition of success,” Williams says. Helping ensure the firm’s success for the future includes carefully considering the qualifications and personality characteristics of potential new attorneys. “We look for top academic credentials, of course,” Williams says. “We also look for people who we think will be hard workers and work well with others. We find and develop people with the ability to perform quality legal work.” Swindle adds that it is not only the attorneys who are responsible for the firm’s success. “Sometimes we forget how critical non-lawyer staff is to the success of lawyers and the firm,” he says. “A lot of credit goes to the support staff who help make what lawyers do possible.” Professional and Community Involvement As important as it is to the firm to be trusted advisors to their clients, it is just as important to be trusted in the profession and the community, says shareholder H. Michael Keller, who chairs the firm’s natural resources & environmental law practice group. He notes that the firm has been involved with the Salt Lake Legal Aid Society “at least as long as I have been here, which is since 1978. We have a long history with it.” “We are also involved in law-related education projects in Utah that facilitate education of young people in the law,” Keller says. “We have the Utah mock trial competition for high school students and the We the People program that many of our attorneys have participated in. Some of our attorneys have also served as professors and adjunct instructors at law schools, lending their experience to help further education in the profession.” The attorneys believe that giving back not only helps their community grow and succeed, but also deepens the firm’s relationships with its neighbors. “We encourage people in the firm to be involved in and give back to the community,” Swindle adds. “Everybody who does give back would probably agree that they have reaped a lot of benefits from being involved that way.” For example, in addition to leading Van Cott, Williams is on the board of Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo and the Legal Aid Society’s board of trustees. Many of the firm’s attorneys and staff give their time to nonprofit organizations, including the Utah Wildlife and Conservation Foundation, the Utah Food Bank, the United Way of Utah, the South Lake County Housing Trust Fund, the Sierra Club, the Rotary Club of Salt Lake City and the Tracy Aviary. As a firm, Van Cott’s employees participate in community programs such as holiday food drives, charitable races that raise money for worthy causes and many more events. “We are happy to support all of these causes,” Williams says. “It is rewarding to be involved with these things because we are giving back, and it is a nice break from practicing law.” When it comes to the practice of law, what does Williams believe the future holds for the Van Cott firm? “I think it will grow steadily from where it is now and expand into new areas,” Williams says. “We have many younger shareholders and in the future, I believe they’ll continue to uphold the reputation as a trusted adviser for which the firm has long been known.”
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