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Executive Q&A: John Mitby of Axley Brynelson law firm

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John Mitby became managing partner of Madison's Axley Brynelson law firm in late 2009, after 36 years with the company. Mitby's first full year leading the law firm coincides with its 125th anniversary. Mitby said he would focus on better delivery of law services through the firm's team approach and increased use of technology.

Madison's Axley Brynelson law firm will celebrate its 125th anniversary this year with managing partner John Mitby at the helm and a renewed focus on using teamwork and technology to deliver legal services more efficiently.

Mitby, who joined the firm 36 years ago in his second job out of college, also plans to invest in the future of the law business by bringing back the firm's law-clerk program this summer, with room for five recent graduates. Mitby said he was concerned about the layoffs of about 4.5 percent of the nation's lawyers during the economic downturn and the effect of that on society.

"This is happening at the same time that everybody recognizes that we have more laws on the books, a more complex society, a greater need in certain areas to be able to get your rights protected or get whatever is necessary," he said. "There is a gap there."

Q: What's the biggest change you're seen in the practice of law compared to several years ago?

A: It's now a 24/7 thing. Business people (who are the law firm's clients) finish their jobs during the day and go home, but then have certain issues or questions they want to ask us about. Five or 10 years ago, it was a fax or a phone call they'd use. Nowadays it's an e-mail, and that e-mail is (arriving) after 5 p.m.

And if they don't expect an answer right away, they want to know at least that you've received the communication, and oftentimes you'll use your iPhone or BlackBerry to tell them you received it and will get back to them on Monday or Tuesday, or that you need them to send you more information.

It's just a way of trying to make certain the client has that comfort level that their problem is being given the attention it needs.

With more than 100 legal specialties at Axley Brynelson, are there are still a few areas of law that dominate your practice?

A: Certainly work-out problems involving foreclosures and lending are key. We've also seen some increase in divorce matters, and there seems to be some increase in criminal matters. There's also increasing anxiety (among clients) because nobody knows exactly what the new estate tax law is going to be like.

We've always been noted as a strong litigation firm and a strong business law firm. Within the last several years, we probably have also increased our work in the employment law area and the construction area.

When the economy is going up or down, it seems to generate a lot of activity in the legal profession.

But you might have to move lawyers around periodically, from an area that's gone cold to an area that's heating up, right?

A: Yes. As an example, obviously most law firms are not doing a lot of mortgage-lending work these days because the banks are having some degree of difficulty making loans. So those lawyers who were doing a considerable amount of loan work prior to September 2008 are now doing work-out problems, where a client has a loan and for whatever reason they are not able to make their payments, and the bank is placing additional requirements to secure the loan. Neither side wants a foreclosure as such. They want to work out the best possible long-term relationship for both sides.

Is President Obama's pending nomination of a U.S. Supreme Court justice being watched closely by your firm?

A: We always watch that. What the Supreme Court does sets the standard upon which our court system (relies), to the extent there's a federal question and to some extent on questions between states.

We want to see two things (in a nominee): Somebody who is smart and somebody who has some practical experience with putting a law into effect. It's not about whether they're a Democrat or a Republican, but (about) whether they have the experience of knowing how the law affects people in their daily lives, both as individuals and businesses.

With the economic downturn, have you had to cut costs at the law firm, through laying off any lawyers or support staff?

A: No, we have not cut any staff whatsoever. We have added staff.

To cut costs, we've tried to pick up on our efficiency. We're trying to use technology smarter, trying to coordinate the use of our staff so they are working in areas they are familiar with, and trying to concentrate on the efficient delivery of those legal services by putting the right teams (of lawyers) together.

As an example, in the family law area you need a family-law lawyer, but also sometimes there's tax questions. So you can tell the client someone is always going to be there to handle their divorce, but there's also going to be a lawyer from our office we can go to if we have tax questions, too.

Do you have a real estate division, and have you expanded into new markets there, given the changing conditions?

A: We do have several lawyers that do real estate. The expansion has been to try to find alternative sources of funding for projects. Banks seem to be reluctant to make loans now. We're trying to find other ways (for clients to get financing.) For example, there's $180 million that the state of Wisconsin has received as part of the (federal) stimulus package.

About billing, your firm provides an alternative in some cases to the traditional hourly approach. How does that work?

A: People want to know, "What is my lawyer going to cost?" The traditional response has been, "We'll bill you on an hourly basis and at the end, you'll know what it costs."

But in certain areas, we should have enough experience that we should be able to tell them what it will cost. As an example, when the economy turned down, our lawyers who were doing estate planning said, "People aren't going to spend money on getting their estates done now."

So they came up with a program for newly married couples, in which they would do their estate plan for $300, for a flat fee, including durable power of attorney, health care power of attorney and their simple wills. It's a fixed billing arrangement.

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