A Practice Whose Time Has Come: King & Spalding's Professional Responsibility Group

Sunday, July 1, 2007 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. Loveland, will you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Loveland: I am a trial lawyer, with 30 years experience. I have been very fortunate to represent a number of King & Spalding's major clients over this period, including Ernst &Young, The Coca-Cola Company, General Electric, Miller Brewing Company and ChevronTexaco, among others.

Editor: How did you come to King & Spalding? What were the things that attracted you to the firm?

Loveland: I am a King & Spalding lifer, although the firm has grown considerably in the 30 years since I joined. Nevertheless, I think its essential character has remained constant over this period. What attracted me to the firm is what I believe attracts young people today: the quality of its lawyers, the challenging and interesting work they are called upon to do and the quality of its clients. In addition, as a native of North Carolina, I wanted to stay in the South, and Atlanta was the focal point of the Southeast at the time. Over my time with the firm, King & Spalding has grown from a regional firm to one with national and now international status. That fact, too - the international reach of the firm - is something that attracts an extraordinary group of lawyers, both new law graduates and seasoned practitioners.

Editor: Over the course of your career you have been part of an extraordinary law firm transformation. I am mindful of the fact that a great many Atlanta firms have simply not been able to make such a transition. Is there some King & Spalding secret here?

Loveland: Several factors have been important to King & Spalding's success. Certainly Griffin Bell's return to the firm from being Attorney General in the late 1970s's was crucial. Judge Bell's stature at the time was such that his presence helped to catapult the firm to national prominence overnight.

A second factor revolved around the firm's relationship with two key clients: The Coca-Cola Company and Texaco. General counsel at each of these clients, Bob Keller at Coca-Cola and Steve Turner at Texaco, made public statements to the effect that the quality of representation their companies were receiving from King & Spalding in Atlanta was such that they felt no need to turn elsewhere, i.e. to Wall Street, for legal representation. Coke was critical to the firm's decision to open in Washington in the late 1970s. In the case of Texaco, Steve Turner requested the firm to open an office in Houston in 1994. These offices, along with our presence in New York, contributed substantially to the firm's growth. Young lawyers who wanted to be part of an enterprise that was clearly expanding its reach, as well as experienced lawyers looking for a strong platform for their practices, came to look upon King & Spalding as a very attractive destination.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice. How has it evolved over the course of your career?

Loveland: I have been fortunate to have a wide-ranging trial practice over the entire course of my career. My work has been challenging, and many of the issues I have handled have been exceptionally difficult and rewarding. Over time my practice has tended to focus on cases that involve substantial financial transactions, contract disputes, fraud or alter ego claims, accounting and liability claims, and the like. Since roughly 1980 I have had the privilege of representing accounting firms in major matters, and that has been an extraordinary education for me. I have also handled a fair amount of mass tort work, particularly during the time I spent in Houston in the late 1990's.

Editor: I understand you are in the process of organizing a new practice group, the Professional Responsibility Practice. For starters, what is the strategy here?

Loveland: We have stepped back to take a look at our practice portfolio across the entire firm. As with any firm, we have areas of strength and areas where we need to expand. We determined that, for us, it made the most sense to drive our growth principally through our areas of strength. Part of the exercise consisted in looking at our litigation and transactional practices and determining the categories where we had experienced lawyers and a clearly defined practice focus. In each of our offices, for example, we have a group of very talented lawyers who have represented accounting firms and other professional service firms over the years. In particular, we have represented the major accounting firms in litigation. We determined that it made eminent good sense for us to focus part of our growth around the expertise of these lawyers and to make use of the synergies of the group as a whole. That, we believe, will enable us to think strategically about, and to address, the challenges that our clients face.

Editor: Can you tell us something about the market for these services? Have other firms established dedicated practices to address such a market?

Loveland: I do not think the practice area is new, although the way in which we are going about structuring it may have a novel feature or two. If you look at some of the major law firm websites you will find a number of firms with a professional responsibility group. What is new about this market, I think, is an intensification of focus resulting from increased public regulation and the attendant private regulation that the former encourages. For example, options backdating was simply not an issue until recently. Today it is a major focus for regulators, and our clients are subject to a degree of scrutiny that did not exist just a few years ago. These are sophisticated clients who view it as important to have lawyers who are familiar with their business and with the issues that they may encounter, and that has resulted in exceptional opportunities in this area.

Editor: Why now? Is there something underway today that might not have existed, say, ten years ago? I am thinking of the corporate scandals and Sarbanes-Oxley, which have had a great impact on all kinds of enterprises, even those not subject to the jurisdiction of Sarbanes.

Loveland: There are both external and internal factors at play here. From the perspective of our clients, there is no question but that the large professional service firms, like businesses generally, face increased scrutiny. The corporate accounting issues, the public outcry that resulted from the investigations of those issues, and the statutory and regulatory initiatives that followed have all had a role in focusing that scrutiny. As a result, many enterprises - and whether they are public companies directly subject to the requirements of the new legal regime or not - have taken steps on a voluntary basis to be able to withstand the glare of such scrutiny. Just recently, for example, 20 state attorneys general filed an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court encouraging the Court to permit investors more latitude in bringing claims against professional firms involved in a variety of transactions. While the Supreme Court may not accept their suggestion, these attorneys general have their own staffs and can initiate their own investigations. That is precisely the kind of thing that is receiving attention in the corporate board rooms and among the senior management of professional service firms.

Editor: Please tell us about the composition of the practice.

Loveland: With respect to size, we do not have a set target. I am sure that our clients' needs will dictate how large this practice will become. At the moment we have about 30 lawyers who have substantial experience in representing these firms, including a number of lawyers with substantial trial experience. We also have a number of practitioners with substantial internal investigation experience, and they constitute an essential component of this practice. Lawyers with securities litigation experience are also part of the practice. In addition, we plan to call upon other practitioners and practice groups on an as-needed basis, and I expect that access to extend to a wide range of corporate transaction lawyers. This is a firmwide initiative, and our attoneys in Atlanta, New York, Houston and Washington are all directly and substantially involved. We believe that this area is going to be important to the firm's long-term growth, and, accordingly, we expect it to be the focus of a great deal of interest across the entire firm.

Editor: As you attempt to market the practice, what are the things you wish to call to the attention of in-house counsel?

Loveland: Given the experience and sophistication of the general counsel and the members of the legal departments of these firms, we recognize that they are well aware of the legal and business issues they face, and believe that they are interested in finding ways in which outside counsel can partner with them to address these issues. That entails the creation of a seamless partnership. Outside counsel does not re-invent the wheel in such a relationship. In-house counsel is well aware of the dangers posed by the timing of options, for example, and a wise outside counsel is well advised to work closely with the in-house attorneys to accomplish what the client needs to accomplish within the appropriate legal and public perception framework. Outside counsel is not seeking to replace the in-house attorneys but rather to work with them in such a way as to enhance their already increased prestige within the organization and to ensure that the expertise of both is directed at meeting the client's needs.

Editor: There are also times, I am sure, when the independence that outside counsel brings to the client is of fundamental importance.

Loveland: That is absolutely true. An entirely independent and objective assessment is of crucial importance to any internal investigation, and much of the work that our professional responsibility group will undertake is going to be in this area. There are times when expertise in a given legal discipline is more important than having a knowledge of a particular enterprise and its business. There are other times when knowledge of the industry matters, and a law firm may be retained even where it knows little about the specific company but has represented others in the same industry or industry sector. Whatever the client - and its general counsel - is looking for in retaining outside counsel, however, a reputation for giving independent and objective advice is, in my experience, among the most important requirements.

Please email the interviewee at jloveland@kslaw.com with questions about this interview.