Mitchell Williams Law Firm Still No. 2 but Catching Up to Friday Eldredge & Clark

As the largest law firm in Arkansas has shed a few lawyers, the second-largest has gained, and now Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodyard is only four attorneys away from overtaking Friday Eldredge & Clark as the largest in the state.

Mitchell Williams, which has stood at No. 2 for at least half a decade, reported gaining six lawyers during the last year, bringing its attorney total to 83. The number of lawyers at the Friday firm, meanwhile, fell to 86, compared with 90 in 2012.

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Small fluctuations in size and rank are normal on Arkansas Business’ annual list of the largest law firms in the state. But a look at the list from 2008 shows that the number of attorneys at Mitchell Williams has steadily grown while the number at Friday Eldredge & Clark has slowly dropped. In 2008, Friday reported 95 lawyers; Mitchell Williams reported 67.

Of course, the number of lawyers is only one measure of the size and clout of a firm, but Arkansas attorneys seem reluctant to share the amount of their billings.

“We have had remarkable growth in northwest Arkansas,” R.T. Beard III, managing partner of Mitchell Williams, said. “We have a number of really competent lawyers up there who have done an outstanding job of taking advantage of what everybody in Arkansas knows is the fastest-growing area in the state.”

Of the 24 firms on the list this year that were also on the list in 2012, 10 gained lawyers, 10 lost and four remained the same.

Some firms, like Kutak Rock and Barber McCaskill Jones & Hale, have reported sizable additions during the last year. Kutak Rock announced in March that it was adding 12 lawyers to its Arkansas offices, and the Barber firm said last month that it had hired five new attorneys. However, what with departures during the year, Kutak Rock ended up with only four more lawyers this year compared with last year, and the Barber firm stayed at 24.

“That is a really good question,” Beard said when asked whether the aftereffects of the Great Recession had finally faded.

“Arkansas always has been, in my opinion, economically in an incredibly favorable position. We don’t experience the great, huge highs, but we, likewise, do not experience the incredibly depressing lows that occur to a lot of areas of the country. I don’t think we really suffered from the recession in the legal market in Arkansas.”

The Barber firm hasn’t seen any significant drop in its client base, said Carter Fairley, a director at the firm, but it has sought to diversify its practice, adding lawyers focusing on business law, workers’ compensation, estate planning and taxation and construction law.

“It’s mostly been an intentional diversification of our practice, becoming more of a full-service law firm for our clients,” Fairley said.

If the firm felt any of the recession’s effects it was only that its growth may have been slower than desired, he said.

Beard, who became managing partner at Mitchell Williams at the end of January, said the firm had deliberately sought to diversify to hedge against economic downturns. “We have been very, very careful to make certain that we have a good mix of business all the way across the board,” he said, citing the firm’s practice in the areas of immigration, intellectual property and insurance regulation, just to name a few. “We have really tried to go from soup to nuts, and I think that’s one of the things that sustained us.”

In its news release announcing the addition of 12 lawyers, Kutak Rock, which has offices throughout the U.S., cited demand. The lawyers “are part of a very active growth period for us, and they will help the firm meet the increasing demand for the exceptional legal services we provide to each and every one of our clients,” said Terry Pool, who manages the firm’s Fayetteville and Little Rock offices.

At least one firm is new to the list, Fuqua Campbell of Little Rock, which has 12 lawyers. The firm focuses on nursing home administration and defense, labor and employment law and criminal defense, among other areas.

Patrick Spivey, a partner, noted that prominent criminal defense lawyer Blake Hendrix was of counsel to the firm. “We represent a lot of local companies and they have a lot of needs, a lot of employees,” Spivey said. “And those employees have family law problems, have criminal problems.”

“What we want to do is have exceptional lawyers in as many fields of practice as we can,” he said.