Bank on it: Howard & Howard comes off best year in 141-year history

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By John Minnis

Legal News

At Howard & Howard, it's all business. That goes not only for its client base but also for how the firm is managed.

Mark A. Davis, president and CEO of the law firm headquartered in Royal Oak, is proud to report that in 2009 Howard & Howard experienced the best year in its 140-year history, and 2010 promises to be another banner year.

"Last year was our best year ever by a number of metrics," he said, "in gross and net and productivity per lawyer."

A large part of the success at Howard & Howard is keeping to business.

"We represent business," he said, "so our approach is as a business. We keep a low overhead."

Further, Davis pointed out that his firm has grown -- both in gross and headcount -- 60 percent over the past five years, 12 percent per annum.

That's saying something since Michigan has been in an economic downturn since early 2000. In fact, the nation has been in and out of a boom since then, a boom that bypassed Michigan altogether.

Since Davis has been managing partner for the past six years, he could claim much of the credit for his firm's success, but he doesn't.

Rather, he credits his team of lawyers - 100-plus -- and support staff. He also credits the firm's adherence to its core practice -- businesses and business owners.

"A lot of firms branched out into other areas," Davis said. "That hurt them."

The Howard & Howard managing partner divides his firm's work into three main areas: corporate transactions, 40 percent; commercial litigation, 30 percent; and intellectual property, 30 percent.

Another of Howard & Howard's good business practices is to not carry clients who are more than 90 days in arrears.

"I think that's been a part of our success," Davis said.

He further credits his firm's diversity, both client-wise and geographically.

With offices in Ann Arbor, Royal Oak, Kalamazoo, Chicago, Peoria, Ill., and Las Vegas, Howard & Howard's clients vary from the automotive industry to gaming to IP to the growing area of alternative energy.

Howard & Howard also recently acquired Defrees & Fiske, a long-standing law firm in Chicago, and continues to hire new staff, avoid layoffs and increase starting pay for associates.

Since its founding above a blacksmith shop in Kalamazoo in 1869, Howard & Howard has catered exclusively to business.

"It's an interesting story," Davis said of the firm's beginnings. "The Howards were influential dairy farmers in Kalamazoo. When the son was hurt in a farming accident, the father said, 'Now what am I going to do with him? I'll send him to law school. He can't do anything else!'"

The fledgling firm began representing local mills and the Shakespeare fishing-gear company. Fortuitously, Kalamazoo was home to several of the nation's earliest national banks and Howard & Howard represented what was to one day become First of America, one of the Midwest's largest banking companies. First of America later merged with National City Corp., which was then purchased by PNC Bank.

"As First of America grew," Davis said, "we grew."

Howard & Howard's relationship with National City (now PNC) continues to this day. In June 2008, the firm bought National's City's four-story building at Fourth and Lafayette in downtown Royal Oak. In a shrewd business move, the firm leased back the top two floors to the banking company and retained and gutted the first two floors for its own use.

"They leased back two floors for 10 years, which helped us to finance the transaction," said Davis, who has been with the firm since 1991.

The Royal Oak location was also a smart move in that its location allows Howard & Howard to maintain one office serving Detroit and Oakland County, rather than having two offices, one in Bloomfield Hills and another downtown.

"We have the perfect location," Davis said. "We have access to I-696 and I-75, and we love the downtown location."

In fact, Davis is banking on his firm's hip location in attracting top young lawyers to the firm.

"It's hard to compete for the young lawyers," he said. "We used to compete with Chicago and New York."

Overall, Davis is happy with his firm's location.

"It's worked out well for us," he said.

The president and CEO's next goal is to reach the "Am Law 200" - the 200 largest firms in America. To help do that, Howard & Howard is looking to make further acquisitions in Detroit and Chicago.

Davis is also banking on some help from the economy.

"I'm bullish," Davis said. "I'm seeing signs of improvement."

Originally skeptical of the automotive industry bankruptcies, Davis now believes they worked out for the best.

"I think optimism is starting to take hold a little bit," he said. "It's pretty safe to say we're not going down. We've stabilized."

Published: Mon, Aug 16, 2010