Skip Miller Featured in Law360’s “Law Firm Leaders” Series
Law Firm Leaders: Miller Barondess’ Skip Miller
By Aebra Coe, Law360 – August 26, 2020 – Louis “Skip” Miller co-founded trial law firm Miller Barondess LLP in 2006. Its founders have since built the firm into a 40-lawyer, well-known litigation boutique in Los Angeles, representing clients such as Los Angeles County.
Miller spoke with Law360 about how his firm is managing amid the coronavirus pandemic, how he plans to continue to grow without a merger, and how he is training the next generation of firm leaders.
How has your law firm, and the legal industry around it, changed since you started the law firm in 2006?
We’re a litigation firm. I left my other firm, we had like 200 lawyers. I started this firm from scratch with my two sons, Dan and Jim, and two other young lawyers who went to law school with Dan, graduated in 2001 from the University of California, Berkeley. And we now have 40 lawyers, so we’re a full-service litigation firm that does big cases all over the country. So it’s changed dramatically for us. We built the firm internally through hiring, training — we haven’t acquired books of business, or lawyers or partners. We only grow organically.
The industry? The industry has been through a lot. We had the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. I remember I was in New York on a case on Sept. 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. We had a major piece of that bankruptcy litigation in California. We represented their largest real estate developer, which had 25 major projects in bankruptcy in the Central District here. We were up against [Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP] and [Pachulski Stang Ziehl & Jones LLP] and we did really well. The industry was suffering and the transactional practice was almost gone, but litigation boomed throughout the recession.
And, here we are all over again. We’re super busy and doing lots of cases, but it’s almost all telephonic. A lot of Zoom mediations and hearings. It’s quite an experience.
How is your law firm adapting its practice to continue operating and thriving during the pandemic? Are there lessons from the recession that can be applied now?
Most of the lawyers don’t even go into the office. Most are practicing law remotely at home. We’re still super busy, we’re not laying off people, we’re not cutting salaries. But you have to adjust to the technology, which, thank god my wife is good with that and can help me out.
This is completely different than it was during the recession. The recession was business as usual with recession-type cases. This is just figuring out how to do it with technology. We’ve had a lot of court hearings. But meetings are few and far between. I had a federal court hearing tomorrow and the judge canceled it because there have been so many new cases in L.A.
Do you think that some of the changes happening right now to adjust to the pandemic in litigation and in the courts could continue after the pandemic is over?
Yes. I think people will continue to work remotely. What we’re contemplating is making it optional. As long as the people do their work and take care of business, handle the clients, we’re thinking about making it optional. Which would mean we won’t need as much office space. The offices may be fungible. If you want to come in, you may not have your own office, you may just pick an office. I definitely think major changes in business and in law practice will remain, long after there’s a vaccine and this virus is gone.
What challenges does your firm face as a smaller midsize firm in today’s legal market?
We’re in L.A. We’re fully electronic, our office manager is in Louisiana and that’s been going on for a couple of years. So we’re already up and running and able to function very well remotely, just by virtue of how we operate anyway. We’re in a strong legal market, there’s a lot of litigation. There’s a lot of midsize and larger cases. A lot of midsize companies, a lot of tech companies. We’re doing fine. Litigation seems to go on no matter what. It changes, but it just keeps going on, that’s just the nature of our legal system and our society.
What are some of the novel legal issues and cases that have come up as a result of the pandemic?
One thing is the governor and the federal government came up with a program called Project Roomkey to house vulnerable homeless people in motels and hotels that were otherwise vacant. Several cities around L.A. County said no and passed laws on moratorium because they didn’t want homeless people in their motels. So we went to court and got injunctions against those moratoriums. It’s like 15,000 or 20,000 people. And then there’s other major federal court litigation over the homeless problem. We have like 60,000 homeless in the County of L.A. So that’s been major litigation to try to prevent the virus from running rampant in that population.
And then businesses have been challenging the governor’s proclamations of emergency and so forth. And the governor’s orders are implemented through the county, so we’ve been on the forefront on dealing with enforcing the governor’s stay-home orders, the contract-tracing orders and so forth.
What advantages do you think your firm has in today’s legal market?
We’re cohesive, tight, nimble. We’re 40 lawyers in one office, we talk to each other all the time — even in this environment, we have firm meetings every week. It’s much easier to coordinate, staffing is leaner. We have some flexibility, we sometimes do plaintiff cases on a partial or full contingency fee. We only recruit from top law schools. So we have most of the time, our cases are against much bigger firms and we have no problem going head-to-head and often winning.
Your firm has seen a substantial amount of growth. How have you approached that? Would you consider a merger?
I would not consider a merger. We recruit primarily from big firms, young lawyers looking for more hands-on experience. We pay the same or sometimes even better. A lot of young lawyers don’t want to go through the big firm experience and are looking for a smaller firm environment. It’s a more cohesive and collegial environment. We don’t recruit at law schools, we don’t have to. And we don’t hire lateral partners at all. All partners are lawyers who were hired as young associates, trained and came up through the ranks. We have a very active business development program and we train them young, they learn how to be really good lawyers, and they get out in the community and bring in clients.
What advantages do you see to that versus bringing partners on laterally?
We’re much more cohesive. No partner has ever left our firm. It’s a very tight-knit group and we don’t have a lot of movement in and out. None at the partner level, and the turnover at the associate level is less than at most firms. When I started the firm with my boys, I decided not to start it with people my age, because I’m 73. I decided to start it with the next generation. My decision was, start with the next generation, train them. They’re now in their early to mid-40s and they’re spreading their wings and doing great. They’re going strong and they’re in the prime of their careers.
What are your goals for the law firm over the next five years?
I just want to continue doing what we’re doing. I want to grow the firm, hire more associates, make more partners, keep the morale and culture the way it is now. Keep bringing in clients. I just want to keep this going like it is. We have a wonderful niche, a great group. I would never merge this law firm. Frankly, other law firms couldn’t afford to.
It’s unusual to have an experienced trial lawyer at my level. I’ve been practicing for 50 years now. A super strong next-generation group all trained by me and trained in court by virtue of experience. I kind of replicated the way I came up and I learned. You have to train them and you have to get into court and we try cases all the time.
If you could have lunch with any well-known lawyer, alive or dead, you would it be? Why?
It would be Frank Rothman, the senior partner who trained me at my old law firm who I used to have lunch with when I was a young lawyer. Frank was a great trial lawyer. With Frank, less was more. A lot of lawyers get up there and they talk a lot, Frank could cut through it like nobody’s business and get right to the key point. He knew how to handle the judge, handle the jury. He was the best. And he was very kind to me, very patient with me, and I’ll never forget that.