Published in Economic Development
Craig Lubben and Robert Wolford, Co-managing members at Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey PLC Craig Lubben and Robert Wolford, Co-managing members at Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey PLC Courtesy Photos

West Michigan economy plays into Miller Johnson’s favor in recruiting legal talent

BY Sunday, December 24, 2017 05:33pm

Craig Lubben and Robert Wolford become co-managing members on Jan. 1 at the Grand Rapids-based law firm Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey PLC, succeeding retiring managing member Craig Mutch. Wolford and Lubben will oversee management and strategy at the firm, serve on the five-member management committee and continue with their respective law practices. Wolford, based out of the firm’s Grand Rapids office, will lead client service strategies and marketplace development. From the Kalamazoo office, Lubben manages business functions that include chairing the management committee and overseeing long-term professional and operational interests.

Why share management duties?

Lubben: As we anticipated Craig Mutch’s retirement, we appointed a succession committee toward the beginning of this year comprised of members at various stages of their career, and the goal of the group was really to look at how we are structured.

That group concluded a couple of things. One is that it is helpful for the managing member to be a practicing lawyer because it helps to give insights into what the lawyers need to be successful in providing services to the client and, hopefully, will help us be more effective in ensuring they have those resources. Second, it became apparent that the managing member job was full time-plus.

The conclusion of the group is that it would be helpful to divide the position and have one person focused on the external marketplace — the needs of the clients and trying to make projections to where the market is going and what we need to anticipate — and them to have somebody else working internally to make sure we structure ourselves to help meet those needs. Dividing it up would allow us to get the benefits of continuing to practice law while serving in this role, but also making sure we’re keeping a good perspective on the needs of clients.

When you talk to business clients, what are their top concerns going into 2018?

Lubben: A lot of that depends on sectors. You talk to our manufacturing clients, NAFTA and how international trade will play out over the next 12 months is something that they’re very concerned about. Health care is something that’s on every company’s mind. Certainly right now for our business-owner clients, tax reform and how that will impact and, more importantly, when it will start to have an impact — whether that will be in 2018 or 2019 — are all factors they’re concerned about or very focused on.

How has West Michigan’s economy worked for the firm in recruiting new legal talent?

Wolford: It’s worked to our extreme benefit. Our business section has seen a significant amount of growth over the past five years and much of that has been due to the fact the Miller Johnson has become a destination law firm for both transactional talent within the region, as well as some of the most active private equity and family office groups in West Michigan and in the Midwest. As we developed that type of momentum, the level of talent that wants to come here has really been impressive.

Lubben: West Michigan’s economy has been doing well, so this is an attractive area to be and, frankly, as a firm we’ve been doing well. The move to the new building (Arena Place on Ottawa Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids in 2016) also created some energy. A lot of things came together that made attracting and retaining talent really a positive for us.

How do you view the added competition with new players that entered the market in 2017?

Wolford: We’ve always had transplant law firms from Detroit or other regional firms want to establish a physical footprint in West Michigan, so that’s not surprising to us. From our perspective, we are very comfortable with our physical footprint and our West Michigan roots and the West Michigan focus has served us well. As our client focus has spread to Chicago, New York and other areas, they appreciate the Midwest value perspective. Firms from other areas that are coming into this region kind of face some headwinds in that regard that we feel are strengths for us. 

What’s your firm’s biggest opportunity in 2018?

Wolford: We may not know what it is yet in the sense with what happens with tax reform. I think there are a number of significant opportunities that could come from that. Having said that, in terms of continued growth areas, the cybersecurity area is something that we’re going to continue to see be at the forefront of companies’ minds, investors’ minds and our clients’ minds. We’re going to continue to face new challenges there and we have a cybersecurity practice group that has been extremely active in 2017, and we expect that will continue into the new year.

Lubben: Cybersecurity cuts across such a broad range of clients. We have a lot of health care clients and obviously they’re affected with securing information with patients. We represent some higher education institutions. They’re concerned about the security of the information of their students, as well as they have campus stores and want to keep that information secure. It’s an area that’s been hot, and it’s going to continue to be hot. 

What concerns you for 2018?

Wolford: There are a handful of things that are potential concerns and I think a lot of them are manageable. The political environment is certainly a concern from a stability perspective. The economy has performed fantastic here in the last year and a half and ensuring that our elected officials remain focused on that and encouraging businesses (is important), and not just nationally.

At the state level, we’ll have a governor’s race next year and we have roads that need to be funded, and we have an educational system that needs to be depoliticized and properly funded so we have workers to fill the jobs that we’re going to create.

From a manufacturing perspective, we’re at the eighth year of a five-year automotive cycle. Are people going to continue to buy cars? While the West Michigan economy has diversified certainly, its core still is manufacturing, in automotive and furniture manufacturing. If there’s any sort of significant correction or dip in that industry, that would be something that would be a challenge for the region.

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