LAW FIRM PROFILE: Small Firm Big CaseS

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  • LAW FIRM PROFILE: Small Firm Big CaseSAuthor(s): PAUL A. MARCOTTESource: ABA Journal, Vol. 72, No. 12 (DECEMBER 1, 1986), pp. 60-64Published by: American Bar AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20759063 .Accessed: 12/06/2014 19:27

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  • LAW FIRM PROFILE

    BY PAUL A. MARCOTTE Amonth before George LaMarca

    graduated from Drake Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, in

    1970, he won his first jury trial. He convinced the jurors to award $2,597 to a boy struck by a car.

    Sixteen years and more than 50 jury trials later, LaMarca is co-counsel

    in one of Iowa's largest agribusiness suits ever, a breach of contract action filed by 13 family-owned seed compa nies that seeks $375 million in actual damages and triple that amount in pu nitive damages from Nickerson Amer ican Plant Breeders.

    "With the size of this litigation, we knew we needed some help. I went to law school with George and knew he was a damn good lawyer," said Wil liam Gibb, a Fort Dodge, Iowa, lawyer

    who is LaMarca's co-counsel in the case. The case is expected to go to trial in federal court next fall in Fort

    Dodge.

    "George is generally regarded as one of the best plaintiffs' lawyers in the state," said Robert Hutchinson, a partner with Brown, Winick, Graves, Donnelly & Baskerville in Des Moines, a firm which has opposed LaMarca's firm several times. "I'd say from a plaintiff's standpoint they're an aw fully good trial firm."

    Right in the heart of America? in rather plain offices off the inter state in suburban West Des Moines, to be precise?the seven lawyers in LaMarca, Marcucci, Wiggins & Ander son, P.C., have fashioned a highly suc cessful plaintiffs' practice accented by a flamboyance foreign to this city of 350,000. Des Moines, the state capital, is home to the Iowa State Fair, high school basketball championships and

    more than 70 insurance companies.

    Despite the shark fishing expedi tions and the firm retreats in Lake Tahoe and Antigua, the heart of the firm is, in LaMarca's words, "a dedica

    tion to civil trial practice. We don't have any desk lawyers. Everyone in this law firm has tried jury trials and bench trials on their own."

    LaMarca's zeal for trial work was influenced by two of the firm's found ers, Louis Lavorato and Brian Wil liams. A partner with the firm since the early 1960s, Lavorato left in 1979 to become an Iowa district court

    Paul A. Marcotte is a reporter for the ABA Journal.

    60 ABA JOURNAL / DECEMBER 1, 1986

    judge; earlier this year he was ap pointed to the Iowa Supreme Court. Williams, 47, shifted this year to "of counsel" status, to devote his atten

    tion to business and real estate ven tures.

    That left La Marca the firm's elder statesman at age 41. "We have

    something that's very important in trying cases: We have a lot of youth, enthusiasm and energy."

    THE UNDERDOGS "We'll represent a client vigor

    ously. No matter what the odds are, we'll do it," said David Wiggins, 35. He and LaMarca sued the state of Iowa on behalf of the estate of a Drake Univer sity track star who was killed, and two other athletes who were seriously in jured when their car skidded off an icy highway.

    The suit alleged state negligence in not sanding the highway after learning it was dangerous. "The state refused to offer us a penny," Wiggins said. A Polk County judge in 1985

    awarded the plaintiffs $4.3 million, one of the largest personal injury judgments ever awarded against the state.

    Two weeks before that case started, LaMarca moved to a Kansas City hotel with staff, files and office equipment for final trial preparation. "The idea was to 'Gestalt' the case preparation, away from the phones, away from everything else because you can be distracted. When you get down to the heat of final preparation, you don't have the luxury even of the distractions that you negate.

    "When we try these cases there are distinct lines of responsibility. For example, I was responsible for the lia bility aspect," LaMarca explained. "David was solely responsible for the damages. We're really a bunch of chiefs who work well together, rather than a chief with a number of Indi ans."

    The success of this arrangement of cooperative chiefs and specialized areas is reflected in the firm's balance

    U

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  • A George LaMarca

    sheet. Roughly 65 percent of the prac tice involves plaintiffs' tort cases with the rest primarily business litigation.

    The firm expanded in the late 1970s, growing to more than twice its present size. But the growth brought new administrative problems. After some lawyers left to start their own

    practices, others were fired because they didn't meet the firm's production standards. Those remaining chose to keep the firm small and the practice focused.

    SPECIALIZING Wiggins developed an expertise

    in medical malpractice cases while partner Lawrence Marcucci, 36, fo

    cused on corporate, business and se

    curities litigation. LaMarca gave up criminal defense work to focus on business and tort litigation.

    The firm's decision to specialize seemed risky at the time. "It was diffi cult not to take any criminal cases, or domestic relations, bankruptcy and real estate because there was a lot of that work around," LaMarca said. "You Lawrence Marcucci

    wondered, where are the clients going to come from? I was turning people down left and right, day in and day out," he said. "Can you be that pre

    sumptuous just to start turning peo ple down?"

    Apparently. Last year, the firm had a gross fee income of approxi mately $2.5 million, with expenses of about 40 percent.

    Due to the nature of litigation practice, the shareholders' incomes can fluctuate widely. LaMarca's 1985 income, including salary, profit shar ing and bonus, was approximately $675,000 before taxes, while Wiggins earned $400,000, Marcucci $325,000, and Frederick Anderson, $125,000. The three associates' salaries ranged from $30,000 to $90,000.

    The firm's charter spells out the shareholders' rights and obligations. "Competent civil trial practice today is a very complex business, and our

    written shareholder agreement re

    flects that," LaMarca said. "We take

    care of intra-firm business first and get that out of the way so that we can

    ABA JOURNAL / DECEMBER 1, 1986 61

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  • LAW FIRM PROFILE

    get on with the things we like to do? try cases and make money.

    "We have developed a written formula incorporated into our pro fessional corporation bylaws that essentially says we're all equally responsible for the overhead. Then our compensation after that is based primarily on our economic results, our respective gross incomes," he said.

    The shareholder bonus plan, which was drafted last year during a firm retreat at Lake Tahoe, gives each shareholder 50 percent of his "excess production" above $50,000; 60 percent up to $200,000; and 70 percent of the excess beyond that amount.

    CAUTIOUS EXPANSION LaMarca said the firm is shooting

    for a gross fee income of $3 million to $4 million in each of the next five years. But the shareholders are wary about expanding by more than a cou ple of lawyers during that same per iod. Next February the firm's share holders plan to look at long-term growth during a retreat in Antigua.

    "We've not been interested in rapid growth or expansion," LaMarca

    said. "We want to make sure if we grow at all it's slow and deliberate. I'd rather be in a position to be turning down cases rather than taking every thing that comes in the door."

    Marcucci expressed a similar view. "We have the resources now to

    handle large cases without the bu reaucratic problems of a 120-lawyer firm," he said.

    The media spotlight hit the firm in 1980 when it represented Timothy Clites, a mentally retarded resident at the Glenwood State Hospital School, an Iowa state institution. Clites, 33, suffered from tardive dyskinesia, a neurological muscle disorder charac terized by grimacing, tongue moving and abnormal limb movements. His condition was caused by excessive doses of tranquilizers negligently given him over several years by Glenwood employees. The trial judge awarded $776,000 to Clites.

    The Clites case helped spur in creased care in prescribing drugs at Iowa mental health facilities, accord ing to Harold Templeman, an adminis trator for the Iowa Department of So cial Services. "It made us become more aware of the problems and pos

    sible consequences," Templeman said.

    However, he said many of the abuses at the institution had been corrected before the Clites case was filed.

    Commenting on their contrasting styles during the Clites trial, the Des

    Moines Register described Marcucci as "Al Pacino in a double breasted suit" and Wiggins as "a Rodney Dangerfield of the legal set." Marcucci scoffs that he doesn't even own a dou ble breasted suit. And the low-key Wiggins commands respect when he speaks of the Clites case with the fer vor of a crusader.

    "Glenwood was a human ware

    house. It was like a concentration camp. It was a human zoo," Wiggins said.

    In another medical malpractice case, Wiggins represented a woman who sued her Des Moines doctor for improperly treating her breast cancer. The 1982 case, Goetzman v. Wichern, 327 N.W.2d 917, proved to be the foundation on which the Iowa Su preme Court adopted pure compara tive negligence in tort cases. Since then the Iowa legislature has limited the impact of the decision, adopting

    modified comparative fault and elimi

    Frederick Anderson

    62 ABA JOURNAL / DECEMBER 1, 1986

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  • nating joint and several liability in some instances.

    The Clites and Goetzman cases illustrate the firm's direction. "We're people lawyers. I don't think I could ever represent the big company against the little guy," said Wiggins.

    Recently, LaMarca represented families of 10 employees killed in a Des Moines department store fire. The suit sought $170 million in dam ages from 21 manufacturers and sup pliers of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) wire insulation. A Polk County Dis trict Court jury in 1984 accepted the plaintiffs' liability theory that PVC in sulation spread the fire quickly through the Younkers Inc. store. By last July, all defendants had settled, averting a second trial over damages. The terms of the settlements remain undisclosed by mutual agreement.

    The Younkers fire case was one of the first in which a jury found that PVC. was the cause of a fire, according to Yves Alarie, a toxicology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "It brought to the attention of the manu facturers the toxicity of the product and how fast it can spread a fire," he said.

    FULL DISCOVERY "I'm a firm believer that you've

    got to put a lot of time into investigat ing cases, sparing no expense to get the facts early on," said LaMarca.

    For instance, when investigating a 1982 grain elevator explosion in Council Bluffs, Iowa, LaMarca hired investigators to photograph the scene, and fire and explosives experts to ex amine the evidence. His client was the widow of one of five men killed in the accident. She agreed in 1984 to a structured settlement with Agri In dustries, the grain elevator's owner, that eventually could pay her well in excess of $1 million.

    Because of high investigative costs, the firm usually won't accept a medical malpractice case unless the recovery is expected to be at least $50,000. For emergencies, the firm has a $100,000 line of credit at a local bank.

    The firm relies on word of mouth for clients. About 70 percent of its new clients are referred by previous clients, with most of the rest coming from lawyer referrals. Referring law yers are required to stay active in the case.

    A George LaMarca and a model of a conveyer belt used as demonstra tive evidence.

    T David Wiggins

    LaMarca is distressed by the growth in lawyer advertising. His part ners once talked him out of placing an unsigned billboard advertisement stating, "Lawyers Don't Need Adver tising. Word of Mouth Says It All." The only advertising the firm does is in a yellow page directory.

    Away from the office, LaMarca goes deep sea fishing. He owns a home and fishing boat in Isla Morada, Fla. Divorced, he enjoys taking his 10 year-old daughter to the ocean.

    His ties to Florida are more than pleasure. He is admitted to practice there and the firm is affiliated with the Sarasota firm of Duffy, Judd, Webb & Wood, P.A. Sam Duffy, a senior member of the Sarasota firm, was pre viously a member of the Des Moines firm with LaMarca. The two men also recently started a separate practice in Fort Lauderdale.

    As a reward for winning a case a few years ago, LaMarca took two of the Des Moines firm's legal assistants on a week-long shark fishing trip in the Caribbean. "We ended up catching five different species of shark," he said.

    ABA JOURNAL / DECEMBER 1, 1986 63

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  • LAW FIRM PROFILE

    Wiggins and Marcucci head for the mountains during the winter. During the summer, they can be seen on the golf course or on the softball field. They play on the firm's recrea tional league softball team, the Bush Hogs. They're both avid Chicago White Sox fans and make a point to see the team play in Chicago or Kan sas City at least once a year.

    THE ROAD TO DES MOINES Every member of the firm is ac

    tive in both the ABA and local bar as sociations. Marcucci is president of the Polk County Legal Aid Society and this month Wiggins becomes presi dent of the Association of Trial Law yers of Iowa. According to LaMarc...