Down by law

Inside the implosion at Miller & Martin

Early last October, a vote was cast that shocked local attorneys and led to the practical obliteration of the large Nashville presence of a 145-year-old law firm founded in Chattanooga. The firm of Miller & Martin was about to see an exodus of attorneys on a scale unprecedented in the Nashville area.

Melvin Malone, a telecommunications and utilities law specialist who had been chairman of the firm for only two years, was ousted from his position by a vote of the partners in favor of James Haley out of Chattanooga. Those familiar with the events say the opposition came primarily from the firm’s Chattanooga and Atlanta offices. Malone was the first person not from the Chattanooga office to the lead the firm.

According to one former Miller & Martin attorney, when the election results were delivered via email, it was like a bomb had gone off in the Nashville office.

“Attorneys slipped in and out of each other’s offices and were immediately upset, shocked, disheartened and angry. The word in the hallways was, ‘This is it, I am leaving.’”

When the news hit the broader local legal community, whispers immediately began circulating. Rarely does the chairman or managing partner of any firm serve less than six to eight years. The previous chairman of Miller & Martin, whom Malone defeated in 2009, was Howard Levine of Chattanooga, who had chaired the firm for seven years. There were questions of why Malone, who previously served as chairman of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority and was believed to be the first African American to lead a large Tennessee law firm, would be so unexpectedly and unceremoniously ousted. Was race a factor — despite the firm’s public push to become the most diverse in the Southeast — or was it a case of the Chattanooga partners wanting to take back control of “their” firm?

When NashvillePost.com began calling the firm last fall to ask about the change, calls were ignored. The silence from above and instructions to remain silent from new management further increased the tension, according to former partners. They say they still don’t understand why the firm’s leadership chose to ignore the calls and bury its collective head. Damage control efforts highlighted by generic press releases ignored the controversy. Attempts to reach Miller & Martin’s Chattanooga leadership for comment on this story were not successful.

But those challenges were peanuts compared to the dynamic that was developing inside the firm. Plans were being discussed and then made — but they didn’t necessarily include Miller & Martin. At the same time, other firms around town began browsing the Miller & Martin roster to see who they might want to cherry pick.

 
‘The wrong people were being quiet’

With Miller & Martin attorneys in Nashville in a daze, new management from Chattanooga came in to try to assuage their Nashville counterparts.

“They came in and asked, ‘Hey, what’s the big deal? It is an election,’” said one former member. “But we told them that what had happened was not the right way to run a law firm. If they had had a problem with Mel’s leadership, they should have spoken up. What became obvious was that some had concerns over Mel’s diversity initiative. He is progressive, not part of the good ole boy network and he calls it like he sees it. What made it worse was that the wrong people were being quiet. Communication from them was lacking if there was an issue.”

Communicating with the larger group would soon not be as much of a problem. There would be far fewer people in Nashville for Miller & Martin’s management to communicate with.

The first exits occurred in January. Dale Allen, Thomas Swafford, Holly McDaniel and Kyle Young jumped to the local office of Adams and Reese. Soon after, labor and employment law specialists Christopher Anderson and Tara Presnell left for the Nashville arm of global player Littler Mendelson. Early this month, Todd Presnell, head of litigation, moved to Bradley Arant Boult Cummings.

Then came the flood.

A small “scouting party” had been formed to explore options for a large group of the lawyers who remained. This team included prominent Nashville attorney Dan Elrod and met with other law firms, both local and from out of market, to discuss the possibility of joining their practices. The meetings led to offers for a few attorneys but not the whole group. Elrod and his team rejected those overtures and emphasized that their desire was to keep as one a core group of experienced attorneys that worked well with each other.

Their big gamble was about to pay off.

On June 7, it was announced that no fewer than 37 members of Miller & Martin — including Malone — were leaving to join the Mississippi-based firm of Butler Snow O’Mara Stevens & Cannada. In one day, Butler Snow, as they are commonly known, went from having two attorneys in the Cool Springs area to becoming one of the larger firms in Middle Tennessee. Since that initial announcement, another Miller & Martin attorney as well as a few from other firms have joined the firm’s ranks.

As this article was published, Miller & Martin's website listed just seven attorneys in Nashville.

 
‘Not the optimum leadership model’

Those who left to join Butler Snow didn’t have to move far, if at all. Miller & Martin is locked in to a lease for three floors at One Nashville Place downtown. Two of those floors have now been subleased to Butler Snow.

Elrod spoke recently to industry publication AmLaw Daily about how the Malone vote led to the major changes at Miller & Martin.

“That seems to not be a very good way to have a transition of leadership,” he said. “It caused us to think maybe there are some other things being done better [at other firms] also.”

Speaking to NashvillePost.com, Elrod, now a member of Butler Snow’s executive committee, downplayed any rift with his old firm.

“The decision by a large group of lawyers to leave the Nashville office of Miller & Martin and relocate to Butler Snow was based on our conclusion that Butler Snow offered a superior platform for us professionally, including a collaborative environment, demonstrated success in growth and innovative approaches to client service,” Elrod said. “Moreover, the firm very much has a “can do” attitude that was attractive to us as lawyers, and we think it will likewise be attractive to our clients.”

Asked directly about conflict with the Chattanooga office, Elrod said, “Our decision to join Butler Snow was not based on a big conflict between Miller & Martin lawyers in Nashville and the rest of the firm. We all have friends at Miller & Martin, and I have benefited personally and professionally from my association with Miller & Martin. It was simply a matter of the unexpected change in leadership at the end of last year causing us to consider whether there might be better options elsewhere. By pure coincidence, Butler Snow was actively engaged in efforts to grow its Nashville presence.”

Asked about race possibly an issue, Elrod said, “The abrupt turnover is not the optimum leadership model. I do not think race was a factor in the election.”

Other former Miller & Martin partners agree, but one added a caveat.

“Race probably wasn’t a factor, at least not consciously, but they sure didn’t take into account the ramifications.”