Burch Porter Touts Usefulness Of Legal Network

By Rebekah Hearn

Burch Porter & Johnson PLLC has a solid reputation in the Memphis area, but as a member of the ALFA International Global Legal Network, the law firm is able to expand its influence throughout the U.S. and internationally.

Chicago-based ALFA International, formerly The American Law Firm Association, is a nonprofit organization founded in 1980 with a network that spans more than 50 legal jurisdictions worldwide. Member firms of that network can contact other member firms for help with cases that call for a firm in another location.

ALFA has 120 member firms internationally and 85 member firms in the U.S., with a network of about 9,000 attorneys, according to the organization’s Web site, www.alfainternational.com.

One law firm in every major market is selected for membership in ALFA, and Burch Porter is Memphis’ ALFA member firm. As a result, the firm has been able to help clients with issues that branch into other jurisdictions, said Burch Porter member Douglas Halijan.

Burch Porter has been a member of the ALFA network for about four years, Halijan said.

Elite status

To become a member firm in the ALFA network, a firm has to go through what Halijan termed a “stringent vetting process.”

Candidates for membership submit applications, after which representatives from ALFA as well as lawyers from other member firms visit the prospective member firm to interview attorneys. ALFA also looks at the firm’s practice areas to see if they fit the network’s needs in that particular market.

A regional membership committee and the ALFA board of directors review an application for membership.

The strict application and approval processes ensure member firms have good reputations and local networks.

“ALFA provides member firms like ours with a … network of people to call that we’re somewhat familiar with and that we respect,” Halijan said. “So if I need help with a matter in Boise, Idaho, or South Dakota or New Hampshire, and we don’t have contacts in a particular city, we can rely on the ALFA firm there to be a firm of the quality and caliber we would want to work with our clients.”

One firm is chosen for each major market or state. In some instances, only one firm is needed for an entire state because the state is small or thinly populated.

“It’s intentionally set up that way,” Halijan said. “They want a member firm in each major market or state without putting law firms in a position where member firms are competing against each other for business.”

In Tennessee, ALFA has member firms in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville.

ALFA currently is seeking to grow its membership in Eastern Europe, Asia, South America and Africa, according to its Web site.

“It expands the reach of our firm all over the country, and frankly all over the world,” Halijan said.

Necessary networking

Halijan said the practice of law has changed over the past decade, causing large and mid-sized firms to do work throughout the country.

“But we have the luxury of not being forced to represent a client long-distance,” Halijan said. “We can associate somebody in that locality who practices there to help. There are lots of matters where you would want somebody there on the ground, helping the client who knows the local court system or knows the local business community in a way that you can’t from 1,000 miles away.”

Although he couldn’t name clients specifically, Halijan said he has made ALFA referrals.

“We’ve done work … for a national disaster recovery services company,” he said. “The company needs legal advice from time to time throughout the U.S., depending on where (our) client’s own clients have disaster recovery needs.

“We were able to utilize our membership in ALFA to secure additional work from this company … with the ability to, on short notice, associate high-quality legal counsel … wherever the client needs it.”

While at first it may seem like a losing proposition to send a client to another firm, the situation is two-fold. One, Burch Porter attorneys try to stay involved in the case even after a referral elsewhere. Also, it’s better for the firm to tell a client they can help them even though their issues relate to another jurisdiction than to say they can’t help and turn the client away.

“We’ve gotten business out of it,” Halijan said.

Benefits

The ALFA Web site’s “Members Only” section has, among other things, information about particular practice areas, such as intellectual property, labor and employment, and product liability.

“There are activities, seminars and marketing efforts aimed at particular practice groups … and the lawyers that practice within those areas have the opportunity to meet annually,” Halijan said, noting that an important part of maintaining membership is participation in practice-area activities.

Cost-wise, Halijan said the decision to join ALFA has been a good one. A firm pays an annual membership fee, which varies from firm to firm depending on the size of the market it’s in.

In the struggling economy, Halijan said law firms, including Burch Porter, are seeing more requests for proposals from corporate clients.

“Lots of corporations are watching costs more carefully than ever before,” he said. “So we are seeing more companies putting particular types of legal work out for bid.”

Corporate clients often have work that spans one or more jurisdictions, so the ALFA directory is especially helpful in such cases.

“We just feel like it’s been a good experience all the way around,” Halijan said.