The managing partner of Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton said he’s no fan of strategic planning, but the Dallas-based firm has still added 17 lawyers so far in 2020.
By Brenda Sapino Jeffreys | August 07, 2020 at 11:49 AM
When midsize Texas firm Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton added a group of intellectual property lawyers — 5 in Dallas and 1 in Houston — in July, the hire wasn’t done to check a box in the firm’s strategic plan.
Neither was a litigation team the Dallas-based firm added in 2019 when launching its Houston office.
That’s because Shackelford Bowen founder John Shackelford is not a fan of strategic planning, even at a time when most firms follow a long-term plan, often paying consultants big bucks to help them develop it.
“We just evaluate each opportunity that arises,” said Shackelford.
He follows three criteria when deciding whether to hire a lawyer: whether the lawyer is a good person— basically no jerks, he says — and a good lawyer, and if the hire makes economic sense for the firm.
Shackelford said that when he formed his own firm, he had two rules: “I’ll never practice again with jerks. The other is where I get to represent clients I want to represent, doing work I enjoy doing.”
Those rules and hiring standards have served the firm well since he founded it in 1999, Shackelford said, noting that the firm has hired 17 lawyers so far in 2020, despite uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Operating the “Shackelford way” has largely dictated the firm’s growth since he founded it with four other lawyers. One of the lawyers, Martha Hofmeister, suggested he talk with Brian Melton who like Shackelford represented car dealers. And Melton knew Michael McKinley, and by Jan. 1, 2002, they launched the 11-lawyer Shackelford, Melton & McKinley.
Growth since then hasn’t followed a set-in-stone plan, Shackelford said, with serendipity playing a role, such as how the firm got into the aviation practice.
Shackelford said some of his wealthy clients were buying fractional interests in aircraft, which made him think about the aviation practice. Then Hofmeister met aviation lawyer David Norton, who was then at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and Shackelford recruited him around 2004.
“David was about the 15th lawyer,” Shackelford said, adding that Norton now heads a four-lawyer aviation practice that does work for wealthy individuals as well as Walmart and Target.
Then, in 2011, the firm added a Nashville office when it picked up the five-lawyer music boutique Zumwalt, Almon & Hayes. Shackelford said he had known partner Craig Hayes since the early 1990s because he represented Shackelford’s son’s band. The Nashville office made sense because of great cross-selling opportunities, Shackelford said.
More recently, Shackelford Bowen launched its Houston office in 2019 by hiring a group of seven commercial litigators from Winstead. In July, the firm raided Winstead again for a group of six lawyers, including five IP lawyers who joined in Dallas and Houston.
While the firm has an entertainment-oriented trademark, licensing and litigation practice in its Nashville office, Shackelford said the new lateral group brought on other aspects of the IP practice such as patent prosecution.
Shackelford said the hiring process at his firm begins when he interviews them “to get a measure of the person” and the prospective hire meets with lawyers in their practice area at the firm. All partner hires must be approved by a majority of the equity partners, he said.
The firm is at 73 lawyers, with five offices in Texas plus a location in Nashville. Shackelford suggests his aversion to being locked in and following a strategic plan leads to flexibility, and firms with a strategic plan may have had to revise it to deal with the pandemic.
Shackelford said recruiters call him and “try to pin me down” but he says he tells them to find him people who meet his “good person/good lawyer” criteria.
Consultant Kent Zimmermann, of Zeughauser Group, who helps firms with strategic planning, said it is valuable, because it allows them to decide which practice areas they want to prioritize. It also helps firm leaders “create a following” to steer a firm in a particular direction.
But, he said, it’s not uncommon for midsize firms around Shackelford Bowen’s size to operate without a plan.
“Sometimes it works because firms are just unbelievably resilient. Legal is a great business, has great profit margins,” he said.
While Shackelford Bowen is focused on growth, the firm founder said the firm hasn’t reached the size where he thinks strategic planning is needed.
“I don’t see anything deviating from hiring good people,” he said.