From Defending International Companies to Class Action Suits, Nicholas & Butler LLP is a Sophisticated, Word-Of-Mouth Practice Where People Come First.
For Craig Nicholas, founding partner of Nicholas & Butler LLP, the first inkling that he wanted to start his own practice began in early 2005 when he read a quote by Theodore Roosevelt, who said “It is hard to fail but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Nicholas, who was already growing restless in his position as a partner with a San Diego business and antitrust litigation firm, was spending his time wondering “what it would be like to take a risk and start a law firm built around my idea of what a law firm could be,” he recalls.
Then came the backbreaking straw, which prompted him to make the change. “I sat in a partners meeting and one of the partners said that the people don’t matter, that we are all replaceable. I disagreed completely and decided then and there that I would leave that firm, and start a new firm based on a different concept of what a law firm could be, because not only do the people matter; the people you work with and the clients you work for are everything.”
Finding The Perfect Partner
Nicholas, who comes from a family of attorneys (his father, twin brother, older brother, and sister are all practicing attorneys), needed to find a partner who shared his vision for forming a people-centric firm. He found that perfect partner ironically, in opposing counsel.
“When we met in court, Matt Butler did not have the facts on his side, but he fought hard, with courage and tenacity. He was a tiger in litigation! I admired that and we became friends when we served together on the California State Bar Young Lawyers Board of Directors,” Nicholas says. Moreover, as their friendship grew, they recognized that they shared a similar vision for what a law firm ought to be, and how it ought to serve its clients.
“We knew we had to make the entire firm results driven. That is what the client cares about, not how many hours you or an associate bill in a year. They don’t care whether your office has a chandelier or not. A lawyer and client must have the same objective: winning. When that is the clear goal for the client and the lawyers on the team, a path to victory will appear,” Nicholas says.
Equally as important as knowing what their firm should be was knowing exactly what they would not allow it to be. “The single biggest client development mistake lawyers make is not recognizing that it is not about what other people can do for you. New lawyers in particular should focus on the hard work of learning how to be a trial lawyer rather than developing clients, because you must have top notch skills to sell before anyone will buy them,” he adds. By way of example, his partnership with Butler made sense as both had extensive experience as trial attorneys on both plaintiff and defense sides. “Lawyers that represent one side have a tough time seeing the whole picture. It’s important to know the perspective, goals and strategy of your opponent to be successful and practicing on both sides enables that.”
With Nicholas’ platform of business trial work, together, the two have the resources which very few exclusively plaintiff law firms have to fight on behalf of wronged consumers and employees in a class action case. The foundation was thus laid for the two to join forces, with the end goal to be in a position to represent local, national and international companies in trials and also be able to champion the rights of individuals in class actions.
Indeed, Nicholas & Butler, LLP was built and designed to handle large, high-risk trials on either the plaintiff or defense side. That means That means that the team is often representing ‘death of a company’ suits. A case in point was Nicholas & Butler LLP’s recent obtainment of a certification of a landmark ERISA $200 million class action against an insurance company. Nicholas acknowledges that this is unusual for a firm of less than 10 attorneys, but says “We don’t shy away from the big case or opponent, we embrace it.”
Nicholas and Butler clearly agreed on the client base the firm would target, but how would they reach those clients? For a firm that didn’t advertise, how were people even going to know about them?
Collaborating with Colleagues
Good old-fashioned word-of-mouth referrals get credit for the success of Nicholas & Butler LLP. In fact, Nicholas estimates that a whopping 70% of the firm’s clients are referrals, with the remaining clients being existing clients returning with new matters. “We don’t advertise,” Nicholas says honestly. continuing, he adds, “But we didn’t start out with $200 million class action suits,” he says, laughing. We started out much smaller. $200,000 grew to $5 million, and so on,” he says. Understandably, however, the size of the cases started growing exponentially as Nicholas & Butler became victorious in more than 80% of their trials.
“We are business trial lawyers, not just litigators. We’ve obtained dismissals on behalf of international companies of lawsuits claiming more than $10 million, while achieving settlements of $5 million and $10 million on behalf of consumer and employees. We’ve appeared at the United States Supreme Court to fight a consumer rights case against Fortune 500 Companies. We welcome high-risk litigation. We thrive on the tough case against the biggest opponent,” Nicholas says. As a result of the victories the firm has achieved for clients in these high-stakes cases, in recent years, Nicholas & Butler LLP has realized an enormous bump in business as a result of joint ventures with other firms and attorneys.
“We co-counsel a large percentage of our cases as joint-ventures,” Nicholas says. We enjoy joint venturing cases with other law firms and bringing different ideas and talents into a case. It’s very common for us to be contacted by a colleague who has a great case on an individual basis, but they aren’t sure if they can make it a class action. We will work side by side with them in a joint venture,” Nicholas says.
This venturing pays huge rewards for the referring attorney, and not just in referral fees, (although Nicholas & Butler LLP insists upon paying a fee for each referral). The referring attorney often gets linked to a major case, which builds credibility and publicity. Moreover, they stay involved in the case, retain their client and get to be a part of something much bigger than an individual suit. Certainly however, the main reason that Nicholas & Butler LLP receives so many joint-venturing cases is due to the tireless work the 7 attorney office puts into the cases. “The in-house and outside attorneys we work with have put their reputations on the line by referring us a case or a client. We have to do everything possible to make sure that we honor that referral and get the results the client and referring attorney want,” Nicholas adds.
Like Attracts Like
Of course, to take on the cases that Nicholas & Butler so successfully tackle, the two attorneys need the support of their firm, which includes seven attorneys and several supporting staff members. However, in Nicholas’ mind, no one in the firm is merely a hired hand. Sticking to his convictions that people do matter, in all areas of law, Nicholas has no desire to hire a “clock-puncher.”
“I interview everyone who comes to work at Nicholas & Butler, LLP. From the part-time file clerk and up, I want to know what to know what their core motivations are,” he says. That same drive to understand the motivations of potential candidates extends to attorneys the firm has hired as well. “I spend a lot of time with potential attorneys to get to know them,” he says. But what he absolutely doesn’t do is hire attorneys based upon an academic resume.
“I don’t hire academics. I hire trial lawyers because that is what the clients want. I find lawyers that can go to court, work with clients, are passionate about their work and win trials.” Nicholas admits this is mandatory for his small firm. “Lots of people can write great briefs. In a large firm, attorneys may only write briefs, and that works fine. But in a small firm, we don’t have the luxury of hiring attorneys with limited skills. They must be able to write great briefs, of course. But they also may be second chair, interfacing with clients, and more. We need a diverse skill set, which isn’t necessarily reflected in their law school ranking,” he says.
Naturally, all attorneys at the firm are also of the mindset that “we’re not going to talk about hours. We’re going to talk about getting the win,” Nicholas continues. Similarly, the team is committed to having a positive attitude, as “it is difficult to build a great practice if anyone is too cynical or negative.” Associates also abide by the firm principle of paying referral fees. “Your word is your bond. If you promised to pay a referral fee, pay it. If you agree to a share a fee, split it fairly. When your peers know you can be counted on and trustworthy, it pays off,” he states. Finally, Nicholas explains that at Nicholas & Butler, “we celebrate and advocate for our peers and they will do the same. The insecure lawyers who put down their colleagues don’t get ahead.”
To show appreciation for the hard work that associates put forth alongside Craig and Matt, “lawyers at Nicholas & Butler are rewarded for successful outcomes more than hours billed. The point is to align the client’s goal – success in trial – with the lawyer’s goals. We reward team members for taking risks without worrying about failure. Clients need attorneys that can see a path to success, rather than being overcome by the fear and risks of litigation,” Nicholas says.
The Risk Proves Worth The Rewards
Clearly, Craig Nicholas has come a long way from merely daydreaming about what a law firm could be. He is convinced that Roosevelt was right on the money, and that it certainly has been better to try and fail than to have never taken the chance to build a new firm with a new vision. Fortunately, Nicholas didn’t fail, but that wasn’t mere luck. By ensuring that everyone –from clients to colleagues, referring attorneys to co-counsel, to attorneys within his own firm – know just how much they matter to him; he’s carved a niche as a proverbial Little Engine That Could (and would) take on the behemoths and fight to a successful finish.
In regards to the future, Nicholas & Butler remains firmly planted in what it knows and does best, complex business trials, with an emphasis on high-risk cases. Nicholas predicts that the firm will double in size within the next five years, due to the volume of referrals receiving, and the size of the cases the firm is taking on. However, no matter how big the case, nor how large the firm grows, Nicholas is quick to note that people will always, always matter most.
Nicholas & Butler, LLP
225 Broadway, 19th Floor
San Diego, California 92101
t 619 325 0492
f 619 325 0496
Filed Under: Featured Stories
About the Author: Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal