The planned closing of Warner Smith & Harris, a law firmed founded in 1887 and considered by many a cornerstone of the region’s legal community, proves that the economics of lawyering shows no mercy on legal history and tradition.
Alan Wooten, the managing member of the firm, confirmed Tuesday (June 21) that the firm would close its downtown Fort Smith location (400 Rogers Ave.) by July 31, with the goal of having all legal loose ends tied up around that time.
“We have made a decision to dissolve the law firm,” Wooten said, adding it is a sad and tough move. “It’s not a decision any one of us expected to be making at this point.”
The primary reason behind the decision is that the firm began losing lawyers faster than it could replace them. Eventually, a firm that had 18 attorneys in 2008 — according to the Martindale-Hubbell directory — was down to less than a handful in recent months.
Wooten, with the firm 36 years, said owners of the firm decided to dissolve “before the financial situation became a problem.” He stressed that the firm has enough money to pay all liabilities and will ensure that all legal matters are appropriately reassigned.
“It’s primarily just a business decision. Too much overhead and not enough lawyers. ... It would take a long time to correct the situation,” he said.
The situation to have been restored may best be explained with a paragraph from the Warner Smith & Harris website: “Founded in 1887, and with offices in Fort Smith and Rogers, our firm is deeply rooted in the region – its businesses, its courts and its people. With an average of more than a quarter century of experience, our lawyers bring an unparalleled level of experience and local knowledge to their work. Senior partners who have practiced in the region for more than 25 years manage our offices. Our litigators have made thousands of successful appearances at every level court – federal, state and county, trial and appellate. Our transactional lawyers have worked on matters involving hundreds of area businesses.”
Those deep roots have been less so in recent years.
Doug Smith, 76, a principal in the firm is not active, and principal C. Wayne Harris died Nov. 10, 2010. Also, the firm has seen several of its experienced and prominent attorneys leave for other firms or jobs.
P.K. Holmes III, a former firm attorney who brought a lot of corporate business — such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Tyson Foods — was recommended for a federal judgeship in December 2009, and was confirmed in February by the U.S. Senate to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. While it does much to boost the reputation of a firm to have an attorney nominated for a federal judgeship, Holmes was limited in his practice — ability to generate revenue — following his December 2009 nomination.
Jim Dunn left the firm in July 2009 to raise funds and help manage the effort to build a $50 million U.S. Marshals Museum in downtown Fort Smith.
Within the past two weeks, attorneys Joel Johnson and Daniel Walker left Warner Smith & Harris to partner with Cody Hayes. Hayes worked briefly as an attorney in the Warner Smith & Harris firm.
Matthew Carter, an attorney who staffed the firm’s Northwest Arkansas office, left to join the attorney corps at Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Randall McGinnis and Kathryn Stocks left Warner Smith & Harris to begin Monday (June 20) their first day with the Fort Smith-based firm of Jones, Jackson & Moll.
Jason Browning recently left to join the Little Rock law office of Mitchell Williams.
Wooten said young lawyers are “more mobile than they used to be,” and added he is not bitter about the departures.
“A lot of those (moves) are good things for the people,” Wooten said.
Wooten plans in early August to join the Fayetteville office of Tulsa-based Connor & Winters.
No attorneys contacted, either former members of the firm or attorneys in other firms, would talk on the record about the closing of Warner Smith & Harris.
An attorney who works in another firm said he was “sick” when he heard about the closing, saying it was as if a close friend had died. Most off-the-record comments reflected shock and sadness about the closing of the once prestigious firm.
“It’s a tragedy,” said an attorney familiar with the legal environment in Fort Smith. “You just hope it’s not a metaphor for what is happening in Fort Smith.”