The Suburbs are the Place to Practice

Hdr_logo I just spotted this article in the Business Ledger, a newspaper that covers the Western suburbs of Chicago.  While the piece focuses on my home turf of DuPage County, the article applies to suburbs and cities everywhere.  Key points of the article:

  • Increased competition is driving professional firms into the suburbs
  • How deeply marketing has made its way into the legal professions.

Well-established suburban law firms are finding increased competition from Chicago-based practices that are following clients to the collar counties and opening satellite offices to serve them.

What it means is that while Chicago remains the epicenter for the legal profession, things are heating up in the suburban market.

The Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois reports that in 2004 DuPage County had 3,983 registered lawyers and Kane County had 1,035, compared to 41,796 in Cook County.

It is safe to say that most fresh faces just out of law school are still initially looking at big law firms downtown, seeking the bigger salaries and excitement of working in the Loop, but suburban attorneys contend that there are growing opportunities for specialty lawyers in the suburbs because of their demographics and proximity to major businesses.

"I worked for a big Chicago firm for many years," said Tim McLean, partner at Clingen, Callow & McLean, LLC, in Wheaton. "When I decided to come out to the suburbs I was told that I was committing career suicide by not working in a big Chicago law firm.

"It is quite the contrary. I have found it better in DuPage because we can be much more cost efficient than a Chicago firm can be."

Many big corporate enterprises have made the switch too, as more companies are moving away from the big city and setting up shop in the suburbs.

"There is a lot more corporate clientele in the suburbs now," said Shawn M. Collins, partner and founder of the Collins Law Firm in Naperville. "Big business is a growing trend in the suburbs and now they don't have to go to Chicago for good legal service."

Daniel Purdom, managing partner for Hinshaw & Culbertson, LLP, in Lisle, believes that there is no lack of opportunity in the suburbs and as technology advances, location is less of an issue.

"People still believe that that Chicago is the place to be," said Purdom. "Clearly there is a huge mass of lawyers there, but with technology the way it is, location is not as significant."

Because of this many attorneys are finding that they can operate with a much lower overhead in the suburbs than it is possible to in the city. That then equates into lower costs for clients, who are often paying for the same top quality attorney they would find downtown.

"Some people want the prestige of a big thousand-person firm," said McLean. "But those are the same people that I went to law school with, and it is more cost-efficient out here."

However, with greater opportunities comes increased competition, and not only from other home-grown suburban firms, but also from satellite offices of large downtown firms that are branching into the suburbs.

"That trend has occurred over the last 15 years," said James M. Huck Jr., president of Huck Bouma PC, the largest firm in DuPage County with 26 practicing attorneys. "Our competition now is with larger Chicago firms that have located out here."

Naperville's Collins believes that this will continue to occur because it is a convenience to lawyers who live in the suburbs as well as the local corporate clientele.

The most notable example of increased competition is how marketing has made its way into the legal profession. For instance, advertising by a law firm was unheard of 25 years ago.

Attorneys of a generation ago regarded advertising disdainfully, but even if some of today's firms still share those views, all agree that if a firm does not market itself, it will soon find itself out of the market.

"Law firms have to beat their chests more than they did in the past," said Naperville's Collins, who has advertised aggressively. "I always tell young lawyers that the first casualty for this business is modesty. The generation before never advertised, but if you don't do it today, it will hurt."

McLean said that his firm only operated on word of mouth for the first ten years and experienced growth, but has recently had to begin advertising because "good service alone isn't enough to help you grow anymore."

Wessels & Pautsch, PC was founded in St. Charles and specializes in management-side labor and employment. That niche allowed the firm to expand beyond the suburbs with multiple offices and establish a national presence, but it has also had to develop new ways to keep its name out in the marketplace.

"We have more seminars now because that is a good way to keep our name out there," said Richard H. Wessels, chairman of the board and founder of the firm. "We also put out a newsletter that has a mailing list of over 15,000. That is a substantial cost for us.

"Things have changed. It's much faster paced. The big downtown firms will market so you have to do it to keep pace."

Law firms like Purdom's Hinshaw & Culbertson have their own complete marketing department. Even those without marketers on staff acknowledge that having to advertise helps them see eye to eye with a client on business-related matters.

"It really helps us understand our clients," said McLean. "I'm an entrepreneur. I deal with them everyday and this gives me a better understanding of what they go through on a daily basis."

According to Wheaton's Huck, to stay afloat and remain strong, successful firms will have to offer a specialty that fits the market around them.

"It is best to be specialized and more sophisticated because that is much more profitable," said Huck.

He said that intellectual property, tax and employment law lawyers will find a lot of opportunity in the suburbs.

"Intellectual property is a hot area," agreed McLean, whose firm provides that service. "A lot of corporations and inventors in this area need to protect their ideas and inventions."

Hinshaw & Culbertson has white-collar crime as one of its specialties, largely because of the area's affluence.

Over the next few years job opportunities are going to be increasingly competitive for lawyers just out of law school, as a large number of students entered graduate programs during the economic downturn.

Huck believes that job growth in the field will occur mostly in places like Kane County, where population growth is peaking. DuPage County may have reached its ceiling in terms of job offers for lawyers, but not for opportunity, he said.

Regardless, many firms see this as a benefit as it could potentially spark a surge in applications and encourage more lawyers to look at the suburbs.

"I think that it is inevitable," said McLean. "It's happening in metropolitan areas across the country. We are seeing more and more firms thriving in the suburban area. You don't need the presence of a big downtown location. Long term, the suburbs are the place to practice."

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