'Some national firms will be determined to have a Nashville office'

Veteran attorney Aubrey Harwell sees city as alluring to legal community

Aubrey B. Harwell Jr. founded Neal & Harwell PLC in 1971 with the late James F. Neal. Harwell has been the firm’s managing partner since its opening. For a decade, he has held the Jennings A. Jones Chair of Excellence in Free Enterprise at Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Business. In addition, he serves on several public and private boards, including holding the office of national treasurer of Boy Scouts of America. Harwell has taught at the Vanderbilt University School of Law (his alma mater) and Belmont University, and has served for many years as vice chairman and co-founder of the board of trustees at the Nashville School of Law. Recently, he was presented this year’s Community Service Award by the Nashville School of Law.  Harwell and The City Paper assistant business editor William Williams recently chatted about the city’s legal community.

There have been various mergers involving local law firms during the past few years. Your thoughts?

The theory with many law firms is that bigger is better. There are opportunities to cross-sell, and that’s a good thing. Some firms have merged as part of a strategy to stay healthy and profitable. Mergers go in cycles, and we’ll see more. Some national firms will be determined to have a Nashville office, and the easiest way to do that is to acquire an existing firm.

How do you feel about the opening of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP? The South Carolina-based firm has lured four attorneys, including the well-recognized Larry Papel, from Baker Donelson.

It’s an interesting model. The firm’s thinking may have been that if it could pick great lawyers from existing firms in the city, the firm could get up and running rapidly. But that doesn’t work quite as fast as acquiring an existing firm. However, given the people who have joined it, Nelson Mullins should be very successful here.

New York City-based Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman plans to establish an office in downtown Nashville. Pillsbury is high-profile, so what does this mean for Nashville?

I don’t know a lot about Pillsbury’s [proposed] Nashville office, but it is exciting for the city. In the next five years or so, you’ll see more national and international firms establish a presence here.  There are several reasons big firms are attracted to Nashville. The growth of the city, lots of universities, the relatively low crime, strong leadership — there is a real appeal here regarding quality of life in Middle Tennessee. When firms look at this area, they want lawyers who are connected and understand the city’s dynamics.

How do you feel about salaries of entry-level attorneys? Any trends over the past few years?

Nashville’s legal community has evolved to the point that when law firms in New York, Washington and other major cities raise starting salaries, we have to raise starting salaries, too. We’ve got to compete. By the same token, all of us in leadership roles in local law firms have to maintain a handle on it. When Silicon Valley firms raised their starting pay significantly, Neal & Harwell raised its salaries to recruit top people.

In what areas is Nashville’s legal community deficient?

I’d like to start by sharing a strength. About 35 to 40 years ago, there were only two or three women on the bar. We have evolved to a place where women are now widely respected in the legal community, and there is tremendous diversity of both gender and race. It’s a function of what’s going on nationally and local leadership saying we’re not going to act in a discriminatory fashion.

The weakness that comes to mind is not unique to Nashville but nationwide. It is the occasional disconnect between charges for legal services and the services the client actually receives. The flat hourly rate model is not necessarily always effective.

You’ve had a lot of high-profile cases in the past. But has there been a recent case that you felt was very important but failed to garner as much attention as it deserved?

I really cannot talk about cases that were important and that garnered less attention than deserved. The client’s greatest success is when the case is resolved with no trial, no publicity and no public knowledge.

To stand trial — the expense and uncertainty — even if found not guilty is not the same as avoiding trial altogether. Those are the ones I can’t talk about but that I view as important.

Nashville School of Law just celebrated 100 years of operations. Your thoughts?

Nashville School of Law was founded to provide quality legal education to working men and women, and the school has remained true to that mission from its inception. There is not a law school in the state that has provided an education for as many public servants — from judges to elected officials — as Nashville School of Law. The school’s students come from throughout the region, some of them driving 150 miles each way to attend class several nights a week. These are some of the most dedicated, highly motivated men and women I have ever encountered — working all day and attending law classes at night.

At its annual recognition dinner on June 1, the Nashville School of Law presented you with a community service award. Thoughts?

I am honored to be chosen for this award by the Nashville School of Law. In 1993, my longtime friend and Nashville School of Law graduate Tom Cone and I agreed, at the request of Dean Joe Loser, to raise money for the school.  I am a great believer in the high-quality legal education Nashville School of Law provides for working men and women. It is a privilege to continue my service as an original member of the board.