Little Firm Specializes In Tough Cases

April 30, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — The little firm of Nantz, Litowich, Smith & Girard isn’t afraid of taking on big cases, or tough ones, and has quickly proved the founding partners’ theory that sometimes smaller is better.

With positive decisions recently in high-profile cases such as the Grand Rapids Police Department’s sexual discrimination and harassment lawsuit and Kmart Corp.’s tax assessment lawsuit, the 10-attorney firm has shown that smaller, specialized firms sometimes can be better equipped to handle certain cases than their larger counterparts.

Most of Nantz, Litowich’s attorneys know this from first-hand experience, because all but Douglas Walton joined the 7-year-old practice by way of a larger firm.

In fact, eight of the firm’s lawyers came from the same firm.

“The seven of us that started this firm thought we’d be more comfortable on the other end of the scale,” said Mark Smith, one of the partners.

“We wanted to be a small firm, rather than a 150-person firm,” he added.

In 1996, seven lawyers from Clary, Nantz & Woods struck out on their own to open the Nantz, Litowich firm, specializing in management labor relations.

“We decided to take a different direction from what the firm was taking,” Smith explained.

“What we were seeing in the ’80s and later ’90s was that you had to be a smaller firm like us, or a large firm.

“The 30- to 50-numbered firms were really kind of caught in a squeeze: They were big enough where they offered a wide variety of services, but not big enough yet to provide it at a cost-effective basis.”

Smith — along with Steven Girard, Sandra Hamilton, Leo Litowich, Phillip Nantz and Mark Pakkala — also recognized that in the case of their former 50-lawyer firm, a mid-management structure including payroll, personnel and technology staff was a necessity —but there were not enough lawyers to spread that cost against.

After the defection, Clary, Nantz & Woods soon ceased to exist, and the remaining attorneys dispersed to various other practices in the area.

“The lawyers that wanted to go to a big firm or become a big firm went to big firms,” Smith said.

“Those that were more mindful of becoming a small firm did just that.

“We have former partners in most of the substantial firms around town.”

Mike Distel joined Nantz, Litowich at that time. John Gretzinger initially joined a large firm, then opted to sign on as well.

Since its inception,

Nantz, Litowich

has specialized in management labor relations, with Smith and Hamilton handling the majority of business-related litigation.

“We are highly specialized,” Smith explained. “We don’t pretend to be able to handle every case that addresses every legal issue.

“We focus our practice on discrete areas of the law,” he added. “As a result, we’re able to take on big cases that fall within those specialized areas.”

One such example was last fall’s GRPD case.

As outside labor counsel for the city of Grand Rapids, the firm was quick to step in when a group of female officers sued the department for gender discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation.

Originally filed by four former and current officers, the case swelled to include 14 plaintiffs and involve more than 100 police department employees.

The suit accused officers right up to Chief Harry Dolan of wrongdoings that ranged from promotion denials to assault.

“The playing field is slanted against (the defense),” Smith explained.

“Juries are of the belief that more likely than not, something happened,” he said. “That is their belief, based on their own experience or the experience of a friend. The employer starts these cases with a disadvantage in terms of the jury pool.”

The department eventually won a complete victory, with all claims either withdrawn by the plaintiff or rejected by the court.

On top of that, the accusers and their counsel were ordered to pay a portion of the city’s legal fees.

“The law is more difficult for the plaintiffs,” Smith pointed out.

“There are more things they have to prove, and it isn’t really an easy burden to establish. You have this dynamic where the human side of the juror wants to favor the plaintiff, but the law sometimes gets in the way of doing that.

“It’s our task as defense counsel to neutralize the predisposition that something happened and get (the jury) to understand what the law is.”

Just last month, Kmart’s bid to collect $8.6 million from townships and municipalities across the nation was rejected in federal court on grounds that the retailer did not prove the case belonged in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

When Kmart filed the suit last May against over 60 Michigan communities — including Kentwood, Holland, Plainfield and Bryon townships — citing that unfair tax assessments had led to tax overpayment, the Michigan Municipal League (MML) and Michigan Township Association (MTA) scrambled to react.

Hamilton had done a variety of tax assessment work for the city of Big Rapids, whose city attorney, Eric Williams, was a board member of the MML. Williams suggested Hamilton to represent his group, and contacted then-MTA president and Big Rapids Township Supervisor Maxine McClellan on the possibility of approaching the lawsuit with a unified effort.

“It seemed more practical to hire an attorney as a group, rather than have every single attorney show up in bankruptcy court every time something happened,” McClellan explained.

“Eric had worked with (Hamilton) before, and said she was very capable in bankruptcy matters, and we know this isn’t a specialty every firm has, so we got together on a joint endeavor between the cities and townships. It is hard to justify spending tens of thousands of dollars that need to be spent on school, roads, and running a government on legal fees.”

The firm’s smaller size has allowed it to operate on a different cost structure, which has made it more accessible to clients public and private.

Another benefit of the smaller size is the lack of conflicts the firm has compared to the larger firms. In a firm of 150 attorneys, a multi-plaintiff or defendant lawsuit will many times produce a conflict of interest with at least one of the attorneys within the practice.

This, along with the specialization, has allowed Nantz, Litowich a steady stream of referral business in addition to their regular clients, at no risk to the client’s primary legal provider.

“It is like when you go to the family physician and he says you have a heart problem,” Smith explained.

“He’ll refer you to a cardiologist, knowing he’s going to address your heart problem, but knowing that he’s not going to spend any time on your cold or your allergies.

“Other firms send clients to us for these specialized matters and we handle that matter, and it’s either the end of the relationship or just the slice of their legal matters that we handle,” he said.

“They know we’re not in a position to offer the full breadth of service that they’re able to offer, so we’re not a threat to their long-term relationship with the client.”

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