Helder Holland Are Nice Fit

December 2, 2002
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HOLLAND — As the public face of Cunningham Dalman P.C., Jeffrey Helder represents one of the most time-tested and secure legal firms in Holland. With roots dating back nearly a century, the firm has grown up with Holland over the years, but like its home city, the growth has been slow and comfortable.

"We've never focused on growth," Helder said. "We've always focused on the needs of our clients. If they require us to grow then we do. If not, then we don't. We add people at a speed at which we feel comfortable."

Training new lawyers is a difficult task, the managing partner explained, and it's one that takes a great deal of time and effort. But hiring new lawyers is something his firm seldom does, mainly because losing lawyers is something Cunningham Dalman does even less. In Helder's 23 years with the firm, he has not seen a single lawyer leave to a competing firm, and has witnessed only one leave to pursue a business venture other than retirement.

Helder himself has not worked for any other firm save Cunningham Dalman, which he joined straight from his magna cum laude graduation at the University of Michigan's Law School.

"I was very fortunate to join the Dalman firm," he said. "A firm with the kind of firm culture it had. Ron Dalman has acted as a mentor for many young attorneys here. He's always been very willing to share his experience.

"This firm has given me great security, and so few people leave. I don't know how my life would have turned out if I had gone with a different firm."

When Helder originally came to the firm, it was known as Dalman, Murphy, Bidol, and Bouwens, for Ronald Dalman, Max Murphy, James Bidol and Joel Bouwens, all of whom are still with the firm. In 1991, the firm merged with another small Holland firm, Cunningham, Mulder and Breese, named for Gordon Cunningham, Andrew Mulder and Kenneth Breese.

The two firms had separately been among the most prestigious along the lakeshore. Dalman dated back to the 1920s while Cunningham's roots predated the turn of the century. Many well known lawyers have been associated with the two firms. Holland's city attorney has been a member of the Cunningham firm for nearly half a century, first with Gordon Cunningham's 30-year tenure and then with current City Attorney Andrew Mulder, who has held the post for 17 years.

The new professional corporation, Cunningham Dalman, enabled the firm to use internal referrals to satisfy almost any client needs. The firm now can offer services in banking and commercial law, bankruptcy, business and corporate law, domestic and employment relations, environmental law, estate planning, litigation, real estate, taxation and insurance defense, among other functions.

At the time of the merger, the firm had 15 attorneys; it has since grown to 17.

"Our size has allowed us to specialize more," Helder said. "We can still do as many things and more, but we specialize on a few areas to better serve our clients' needs."

Helder's expertise includes estate planning and business law, primarily business transactions and retirement planning.

"Most of our business is the small Holland businessman and the individual behind the business, which would also include things like estate planning and divorce," Helder sa

Over the years, Helder has seen quite a few changes, in Holland and the industry.

"We're happy to have grown with Holland," he said. "We're dealing with quite a few more extremely wealthy local people than we have in the past."

Some of Cunningham Dalman's larger clients include the City of Holland, the Holland Board of Public Works, Hope College, and non-corporate work for both Macatawa Bank and trucking company USF.

Helder will resign his position as managing partner this year. He has held the spot for five years, longer than any other partner.

"It's really only a figurehead position," he said. "The shareholders will choose a new managing partner, whose main function is to serve as a chairperson for the managing committee and work with the firm administrator to anticipate and solve problems.

"I've always enjoyed administrative work, that's why I did it for so long," he added. "But now I want to concentrate on just practicing law."

The duties of the managing partner were cut in half when a firm administrator was hired a few years ago. Now the managing partner's main duties include overseeing the firm administrator, personnel and supply needs.           

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