Law firm is small by design

Source: Courier Journal
Author: Marcus Green
Date: May 5, 2003

Boyhood friends then partners

The Fifth Street offices of Hummel, Coan, Miller & Sage have all the trappings of a large law firm. The 17th-story view from the conference room stretches for miles on a clear day, fading somewhere in the knobbed hills of Southern Indiana.

Around the corner, the hallways are lined with legal volumes in stately bookcases. The sign above the receptionist’s desk proclaims the firm’s four prominent names – one more, incidentally, than Frost Brown Todd LLC, Louisville’s largest law office.

But while other firms strive to be big, this law office is small by choice. Here, no associate lawyers scramble to handle partners’ cases. It’s just the partners, the way it has been since young lawyers Dennis Hummel and Marvin Coan started their firm 25 years ago this spring.

Hummel traces his interest in law to his undergraduate days at Indiana University in the late 1960s. A history student, he became enthralled with a class on constitutional law. He was hooked.

Coan traces his interest a little further back. It was while reading Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962 that he decided to become a lawyer. The book’s subsequent film adaptation, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, clinched his decision.

“From that day forward,” he said, “I never wanted to be anything other than a lawyer.”

The two men have been friends since Hummel was a fourth-grader at Goldsmith Elementary, Coan one grade behind. “Our paths really followed after that,” Hummel said, “and we maintained our friendship from that day forward.”

They played on the same baseball team – the Red Sox – at the Jewish Community Center. Their friendship took them on double dates at Seneca High School (during the school’s golden years, Coan notes, that produced Diane Sawyer and Jerry Abramson).

They both went to Indiana University at Bloomington .

“The only departure that he’s had from common sense,” Coan said of Hummel, “is he went to U of L law school and I went to UK law school.”

Upon graduation, Coan spent four years in the civil division of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Hummel went to work for a law firm in Louisville. He practiced there until the senior partners split up, then started his own practice. Along the way, both men got married, with each attending the other’s wedding.

The Coans were living in the nation’s capital in the mid-1970s but making frequent trips back home. “We stayed in touch with Dennis and his wife and a lot of my friends here,” Coan recalled. “And so we just decided that this was something we needed to do – open our own law firm.”

Some of their peers tried to dissuade them, saying they couldn’t succeed on their own. They didn’t listen. The law firm of Mazin, Hummel, Coan, Owens and Gersh opened on March 20, 1978. (The other original partners have since retired or left.)

Their friendship wasn’t an obstacle to starting their own firm, and they say it hasn’t hindered their work in the intervening years. They don’t socialize as often as they used to, but they attribute that to family obligations and other responsibilities.

Says Hummel: “I think both Marvin and I respect each other as human beings. … We each give each other the respective distance that we each need.”

Says Coan: “I think on some levels Dennis and I have almost a brotherly relationship. That’s not to say that over the years – especially when we were younger – that we didn’t have some differences of opinions about things.”

Partner David Sage, who joined the firm in 1992, sees it this way: “I think it was probably easier for them to become partners after having a long-term friendship than vice versa. …. The ground rules were already laid on how you deal with one another.”

At first, they were scrounging for clients. Coan, who specializes in civil litigation, said he tried murder cases and horse-race-fixing conspiracy cases. Any business was welcome.

“That’s called two-legged law,” interjected partner Bill Miller Jr., who joined the firm last year. “Anything that walks in the door.”

Beyond that, the partnership between Hummel and Coan made sense for several reasons. For starters, both Coan and Hummel admit they aren’t suited for large firms.

And law does not always make the best bedfellows. The partners say it’s routine for lawyers to jump from firm to firm. “There are a lot of lawyers in this town who have been with more firms than … Elizabeth Taylor has had marriages,” Coan said.

The firm has seriously considered merging with two local law firms but decided to pass on both. During one such negotiating session in the late 1980s, Coan and Hummel had filed into the other company’s conference room for a meeting.

Then, the story goes, the senior partner walked in and spotted Hummel sitting in his chair. “When the guy came in and said, ‘Oh, That’s my chair. Get up,’ (Hummel) and I both knew that it wouldn’t work out very well,” Coan said.

In a way, it was an omen that convinced them that staying small was the way to go.

Their counterparts in larger firms sometimes send business their way. Frost Brown Todd attorney Winston Miller has referred employment law and medical malpractice cases, even general business litigation, to Hummel, Coan, Miller & Sage.

“They are good lawyers,” he said. “Even irrespective of the size of the firm that they have, I would be inclined to send them business.”

Marcus Green covers small business issues. If you have a story about a business that has reached a turning point, write him at P.O. Box 740031, Louisville, Ky. 40201-7431. Phone: 582-4675. E-mail: magreen@courier-journal.com.

Caption: Partners in the law, from left: Dennis Hummel, David Sage, Marvin Coan and Bill Miller Jr. The firm has no associates and has stayed small by design since Hummel and Coan started the business 25 years ago.

by michael clevenger, the courier-journal

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