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Harry Trueheart: Making his practice the business of law

Every year, phones start to ring in the offices of America’s top 100 or so law firms in America. Reporters for American Lawyer magazine dial partner after partner, seeking details of firm finances and partners’ compensation. Partners are those who have accreted knowledge, success and, above all, clients. Along with the legal know-how, and courtroom and boardroom victories they have accumulated, senior partners for America’s largest law firms probably have the goods on every major player– winners and losers, saints and sinners.
Yet no one has the goods on them–no one, that is, except their partners, the peers whose money and power they share.
And every year in the offices of America’s leading law firms, someone cracks and spills the beans to the reporters from American Lawyer. One well-informed blabbermouth is all it takes.
Nixon, Hargrave, Devans & Doyle has never made the American Lawyer top 100 law-firm list. The likely explanation: nobody at Nixon, Hargrave has ever cracked. Year after year, partners at the largest firm in the state outside of New York City stonewall American Lawyer. Proudly and confidently, they button their 115 sets of lips.
None of the partners at Nixon, Hargrave is more proud of that sign of unity than Harry Trueheart III, latest in the line of partners tapped to run the business of the firm. He chuckles about it, giving the impression he looks forward to his phone call from American Lawyer so he can, once again, say nothing.
That every partner can count on every other partner to honor the code of silence says a lot about Nixon, Hargrave in an era when high-powered lawyers drag their profitable client payloads to any place that offers them a quicker buck. Many law firms, Trueheart says, are no more than “an agglomeration of individual practitioners.” Not so Nixon, Hargrave, a firm whose Rochester roots date back over a century.
Harry Trueheart’s roots in the legal profession are at Nixon, Hargrave. He worked there as a summer clerk while at Harvard Law School, was hired as an associate in 1969 and elevated to partnership in 1977. On Feb. 1, Trueheart, 51, became managing partner of the 252-lawyer firm, which employs nearly 700 people in six offices.
Yet, after 25 years of practicing law at Nixon, Hargrave, Trueheart maintains he has no clients.
“All clients are the firm’s clients,” he says.
This integrated approach, he adds, gives each client access to specialized expertise focused in the firm’s practice groups. Concentration gives firm attorneys the edge in their fields, while high- tech communication ties the fields into a firm.
Trueheart, the picture of the gentleman litigator, also cannot recall ever working a 40-hour week. Sixty hours on the job is a normal week and some workdays stretch to 24 hours.
The 110 days straight he worked awhile back during intense negotiations, that was a bit of a strain, Trueheart admits. He scared himself once by getting from Wall Street to Kennedy Airport in 20 minutes. And flying to Geneva twice in five days left him “a little dragged down for a while.”
Trueheart is as uncomplaining as he is realistic about what it takes to play downtown with the big kids. He long ago gave up even imagining what an ideal workweek might be like, knowing that “life as a lawyer is highly irregular.”
A few weeks back, he recalls, a client in Texas phoned him concerning a dispute with someone in South America, a dispute that called for Trueheart’s help.
“My schedule was full and this wasn’t on it. But what was I going to say? No?” says Trueheart in a tone that makes it clear saying no to clients is not an option.
Peculiar schedules and demanding work are pretty much what Trueheart expected when he decided to practice law. As a high school senior, he visited a friend at Harvard, whose roommate had forsaken legal studies for a career in medicine. What scared him away from law, the roommate said, was the sight of a law student neighbor pounding the books at his kitchen table until the wee hours, night after night.
Trueheart was undaunted.
After receiving his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and after the obligatory pounding of books at Harvard Law, Trueheart weighed offers elsewhere before deciding to return to Rochester, his and his wife’s hometown. Here they settled and raised their two children, and Trueheart practiced law at the firm where the local Rochester element is still a vital part of the practice.
At the same time that practice has sent him from Geneva to the Taj Mahal to the Pacific Rim to South America. His wife, Karen, has produced scientific programs for WXXI-TV 21. Son Eric is in Hollywood, following in his mother’s footsteps and “trying to make his way” in the electronic media, Trueheart says. Eric has worked on the PBS series “Future Quest” and on a film shown at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. The Truehearts’ daughter, Kate, took a break from her East Asian studies program at Boston University to hike glaciers in Patagonia, living out of a backpack for weeks at a time.
Deal lawyers, tax lawyers, labor lawyers–all work hard, Trueheart says. But speed sets litigators apart from other attorneys. So does trouble. Litigators go to work only when a rumble is brewing. Trueheart headed Nixon, Hargrave’s litigation practice for six years before taking on the managing partner’s post.
The friend Trueheart visited at Harvard when he was deciding his course in life now is a fellow Nixon, Hargrave partner and litigator. John Smith says there are lawyers who are intrigued with business and there are lawyers who are good at business. Few lawyers are both, he adds.
“Harry Trueheart is that relatively unique practitioner–a first-rate lawyer with a real appreciation for business,” Smith says.
Trueheart’s gift for the business of law, the product of a deep rapport with clients, is what led other partners to elect him to the managing partner’s job, his friend and colleague says.
Trueheart’s “active, fertile” mind, his years of contributions to firm management on the policy committee, and his drive to tackle management as a profession are among the things that earned him the CEO spot, says Alfred Giuffrida, his predecessor.
Along with affection and respect, an edge of mischief emerges in what his partners have to say about the new managing partner. Apparently it is as easy to embarrass Trueheart with praise as it is impossible to intimidate him in the courtroom.
Trueheart says he became managing partner when “everybody stepped back but me.”
After 17 years of being involved at different levels in managing Nixon, Hargrave, Trueheart told his partners he would not take the managing partner post unless they sent him to school to learn how to do it. He and other CEOs from across the country spent a month in intensive executive training at the University of Michigan.
Trueheart says he learned some new techniques to help bring “efficiency, good order and sense” to the practice of law. He also listened to a few lawyer jokes. Trueheart was the only attorney in the bunch.
Nixon, Hargrave is known for its cutting-edge sophistication in computer capabilities, development of non-lawyer specialties, market-targeted practice groups and flat- and mixed-fee arrangements. Like executive training for its managing partner, these are areas in which the firm has fast outpaced the profession.
To Trueheart, they are simply “a matter of getting out in front of inevitable change rather than being dragged along with it.”
Clients and common sense, not creativity, dictate how Nixon, Hargrave operates, Trueheart says.
“We are benchmarked by our most sophisticated clients, not by other law firms, because we know and care more about how our clients do business than how other law firms operate,” he explains. “What our clients want is value, speed and price. They don’t want to see us with pads and pencils. They know what that costs them.”
Trueheart worked closely with Giuffrida as chairman of the firm’s policy committee. Over his five years as managing partner, Giuffrida fine-tuned the firm’s marketing and aligned its practice development with client demands for specialized legal services.
A corporate and securities attorney, Giuffrida says he and Trueheart are in tune philosophically, so the transition will be an easy one for the firm.
Demands of the post prompted Nixon, Hargrave to redefine the managing partner’s role as a full-time CEO post a few years into Giuffrida’s term. No career path exists in law for lawyer-managers comparable to the tracks laid out in other businesses, Giuffrida said.
Trueheart points to the firm’s heavy investment in its infrastructure–the 40,000 briefs in the in-house legal data base, the expertise of its work product specialists, its web of real-time computer communications–as evidence Nixon, Hargrave is not stepping back from change. If stepping forward means leaving the beaten path, Harry Trueheart has been there before.
(Rochester Business Journal Profile, Mar. 3, 1995)

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