Leading with a firm, just hand

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 at 12:00am

What is the current state of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis?

We just celebrated our 100th anniversary and are a year into implementing our new strategic plan. Because of this, we are looking forward to a bright future for the firm and for Nashville.

What are some details of the plan?

Conversation with a leader
Ralph Davis
Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis PLLC, chairman and board member
Hometown: Clarksville, Tenn.
Age: 44
Education: Bachelor's degree, Vanderbilt; law degree, Yale
First conventional job: Law clerk, office of Judge Gilbert S. Merritt, U.S. Court of Appeals for 6th Circuit, Nashville
Hypothetical dream job: Park ranger

Elected Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis chairman in February 2004, Davis is one of the leaders of the firm as it celebrates in 2005 its 100th year of operation. Davis focuses his practice on the financial services and health care industries, and stresses that the firm continue to be a leader in providing legal services to the health care industry. For example, earlier this year, HCA Inc. retained Waller Lansden to assist it with the divestiture of 10 acute care hospitals. Working from the firm's office at 511 Union St. downtown, Davis helps lead a team of about 360 employees.

First, we will be a firm that is totally focused on client service. Only about 30 percent of Fortune 500 businesses are satisfied with their legal representation, according to BTI Consulting Group. Second, we will continue to focus on the needs of the health care industry - on both a local and national basis. We also are committed to continuing our reputation as a go-to law firm for medium- and large-sized businesses, public or private.

Why the emphasis on health care?

Our firm has a four-decades-long tradition of representing market leaders in the health care industry. We believe this is a major strength. We are blessed to be in a community where the health care operations are leaders locally and nationally. We're committed to providing whatever services they need from outside legal counsel. We certainly expect to be the counsel of choice for any locally based health care company.

What is the firm's recruiting philosophy?

Our strategy is to find the best-qualified candidates. We are committed to maintaining a diverse workforce, one that reflects both the community and our client base. For example, 6 percent of our attorneys are minorities and 13 percent are female. Everybody wants the same 10 percent of the talent pool, and there is a lot of competition for minority talent. We win some and lose some - but we keep trying.

What are Waller Lansden's weaknesses and how are you addressing them?

Our law firm struggles to find the right balance between corporate-style management and partnership collegiality. We face competition for the best work from larger firms that are managed very effectively. That presents a challenge in an increasingly competitive marketplace. This is no longer a gentlemanly profession where clients stay with firms based solely on relationships. With some clients, you're only as good as your last lawsuit.

What has been perhaps the firm's most significant court victory in the past few years?

A significant litigation matter we settled in 2004 involved the Eastman Chemical Company. Waller Lansden successfully protected the sales and use tax exemptions available to manufacturers in Tennessee. Eastman Chemical received a tax refund of $1.3 million when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that chemical catalysts used by the company qualified as "industrial machinery" because of their integral role in the chemical manufacturing process. This decision was one of only three state tax decisions issued by the Tennessee Supreme Court in the past decade.

And the most difficult setback?

From time to time, locally based companies will go out of town to hire other lawyers on the perception that they need to do so to have their legal needs met. Every time it happens, it's disappointing.

What is your strength as a business leader?

My willingness to listen. My management is focused on our 172 lawyers. Teresa Walker [the firm's executive director] manages our 161 non-legal personnel.

Your weakness?

I sometimes have an inability to put myself in the other person's shoes.

Where will Waller Lansden be in 10 years?

We're committed to being a part of downtown. We're in Los Angeles, and it's possible we will be in other cities. However, our growth strategy does not include opening in cities just to have offices there. We will open new offices either to meet client needs or to affiliate with lawyers who will improve the services of our firm. Given our health care practice, at some point we will likely have a Washington, D.C., office.

How will the reinvention of downtown as a place to live impact your office and the firm's business?

The reinvention of downtown will have two immediate impacts. First, we are counsel to the bank group that is leading the financing for the proposed Sounds stadium, and we expect to be involved. Secondly, anything that makes Nashville a better place to live will improve our law firm. An active downtown residential community will enable Waller Lansden to attract people from places like New York and Chicago and who prefer an urban lifestyle.

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