February 6, 1996 in Nation/World

A Case Of Less Is More In Four Months, Tiny Law Firm Wins $10 Million In Judgments

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:feature

The lawyers at McCormick Dunn and Black don’t apologize for drawing blood.

In just 120 days, they’ve won more than $10 million in judgments for their clients.

They’ve successfully sued city governments and the state of Washington. They took on Kaiser Hanford for one client, winning a $794,000 judgment which the nuclear reservation was slow to pay.

McCormick Dunn and Black responded by filing the first-ever lien against Hanford, freezing millions of dollars in assets until it took care of that little firm from Spokane.

Yes, little. With only a half-dozen attorneys, McCormick Dunn and Black is among the smallest of firms. Its results, however, are anything but:

$2.5 million for a construction company hired to build a 7-mile-long gas line in Seattle. The job went sour, leaving the company, Uribe Construction, facing bankruptcy.

$2.8 million for a construction company hired to work on expansion of Coeur d’Alene’s wastewater treatment plant. A court ruled the city illegally broke its contract with Construct Tech Inc. in 1992, putting the Salt Lake City company out of business.

$3.5 million for ACME Concrete Co., which had a five-acre work site condemned by the state in 1992 to make room for construction of the Wandermere bridge. A jury dinged the state Department of Transportation with the bill, saying it grossly had underestimated the value of ACME’s land.

“Yeah, we’ve heard about their little streak,” Spokane attorney and past adversary Tim Cronin said wryly. “Everybody has.”

“They are relentless and thorough,” said lawyer Jim Craven, who has found himself up against the McCormick Dunn and Black team several times. “My first thought whenever I find out we’re going to be opposing counsel is, ‘This is going to be a lot of work.”’

Partner Joel McCormick said what’s happened over the past 120 days isn’t the result of “some sudden act of genius.”

“It’s the result of long, hard work,” said McCormick, 49.

It started three years ago, when McCormick, Bob Dunn and John Black abandoned 10-year careers with Winston and Cashatt, then Spokane’s second-largest law firm with more than 30 attorneys.

All partners at Winston and Cashatt, the men said “personal differences” and a desire to leave the big-firm atmosphere prompted their exodus.

“Whatever bitterness there may have been is ancient history now,” said McCormick. “We had a different philosophy on serving clients and a smaller firm fit that plan better.”

Lyn Rasmussen, chairman of the Winston and Cashatt board, likened his former partners’ departure to a “sad divorce.”

“It wasn’t the most positive thing in my life at all when they left,” Rasmussen said. “But you move on. They’re doing well now and we’re doing well and everybody’s happy. End of story.”

The trio moved into the Fernwell Building on Riverside, choosing office space on the second floor that they filled with files but little furniture. They asked their wives to take turns answering the telephone and flipped coins to decide whose name would go first on the letterhead.

“My name went last, so I got the biggest office,” shrugged Black, 36.

The move intrigued old Winston and Cashatt pals.

Attorney Keller Allen visited the new firm often, watching his former colleagues paw through files in bentup cardboard boxes. Among the three of them, they started with roughly two dozen clients - customers carried over from Winston and Cashatt.

“They barely missed a beat,” Allen said.

He joined the firm six months later, followed by Deborah Hander, a former assistant state attorney general, and Richard Campbell, 30, a Gonzaga University honors graduate.

They evolved into an office with 300 clients and a reputation that belies their less-than-polished start.

With construction law as its speciality, the firm now handles wrongful terminations, harassment, negligence and personal injury cases as well.

Now, the lawyers have big desks and packed bookshelves, real secretaries and a stylish conference room with hardwood floors and cushioned chairs on wheels. Each of their photographs is printed in a slick brochure that promises “first-rate legal counsel.”

“People think big is better when it comes to law firms,” said Dunn, 42. “But being small has been our advantage.”

Their size lets them give clients more attention, McCormick said. Cases aren’t tossed from lawyer to lawyer. Customers get the specialized experience of one or two very good ones, he said.

That teamwork impressed Mike Uribe, who went to the firm when his Seattle gas line job went bad last year.

“It’s a big plus,” Uribe said. “I don’t know anybody who works harder than they do. They’ll work all night and still be more alert and better prepared than the other guy.”

That could be because big firms in other cities often underestimate McCormick Dunn and Black, the partners said.

“When they see Spokane on the letterhead, they think we’re going to be a bunch of country bumpkins with straw in our ears, unable to find our way to the courthouse,” Dunn said.

“But they make that mistake like oh, maybe once,” Black said, grinning. “That’s usually all it takes.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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