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Working to raise the bar for his profession

You can never turn the clock all the way back. Michael Wolford knows this. Still, he would not mind turning it back a little.
As president of the Monroe County Bar Association, Wolford is positioned to open a debate about a trend in legal advertising he sees as having long ago crossed a line.
How far the debate might go is open to question. But barring a U.S. Supreme Court decision reversing Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, Wolford recognizes an outright ban is not in the cards.
After taking over as bar association president last July, he set up a task force on advertising, which he hopes will make a recommendation by the end of the year so he can start to act on it before his term expires in June.
Wolford does not want to speculate on what that action might be until the task force turns in a report. In chartering the committee he did not try to push it in any specific direction.
“I want them to analyze what has happened since Bates,” Wolford says.
Wolford does not plan to let any recommendations the group might make gather dust.
“I’m hoping that whatever we do here could be a model for other bar associations in the state and around the country,” he says.
Lawyers are not required to be bar association members, but the standards set by the association carry weight even among non-member attorneys. The Monroe County association membership has grown from 1,826 lawyers in 1991-roughly 57 percent of the total attorney population of the seven-county Seventh Judicial District-to 2,200, or 70 percent of all attorneys in the district.
Like other affiliates of the New York State and the American bar associations, the 11-employee local bar association maintains committees in specific practice areas such as environmental law, tax law and bankruptcy. It also has committees for corporate counsels and judges. Wolford has added to the group’s more than 20 committees, setting up a new mentoring committee.
But while the committees help determine practice norms for lawyers, since the Bates decision no bar associations local or national have enjoyed quite the clout they used to have.

Landmark case

In the Bates case, the Supreme Court in 1977 struck down the State Bar of Arizona’s ban on lawyer advertising as a violation of the constitutional right to free speech. Before Bates, all U.S. bar associations forbid attorney advertising. Though some attorneys occasionally defied the ban, they were looked at by more respectable colleagues as the worst sort of ambulance chasers.
In its 1977 decision, the Supreme Court ruled advertising was a protected form of speech and could not be regulated by any bar association. The Supreme Court also said the bar association could not economically hobble the two-attorney firm that brought the case. The firm, which had developed a practice based on doing a high volume of routine work for low fees, had argued that to generate sufficient volume to make its business model work, it needed to advertise.
The pre-Bates era was a different time, Wolford says. “Fifty years ago you couldn’t even take a boldface listing in the white pages.”
And in what now seems a violation of antitrust laws, bar associations used to dictate what fees lawyers could charge.
“Nobody is suggesting we should go back to that,” Wolford says.
But post-Bates, lawyer ads-many placed by personal injury firms looking to capitalize on the high-volume model-have become commonplace in ways Wolford thinks the 1977 Supreme Court did not anticipate.
He is convinced a steady stream of ads in which lawyers promise to win huge judgments for accident victims, coupled with media fixation on occasional multimillion-dollar plaintiff awards, has warped the public image of U.S. lawyers in an unflattering and inaccurate way.
“I don’t think the public or the profession has been well served by a lot of the (law firm) advertising,” Wolford says. “I’m hoping that maybe we get a movement going to change the tone, make it more positive and helpful. There are a lot of lawyers who do pro bono work that you never hear about.”
Proof of how badly warped the public’s perception of trial lawyers has become can be seen in the ease with which the Bush campaign denigrated Democratic vice presidential candidate Jonathan Edwards solely on the basis of his former career as a trial lawyer, Wolford says. He found it ironic that Republicans indulged in such tactics. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, was a trial lawyer.
While some-such as the personal injury lawyers who do advertise-might disagree with Wolford’s view, it is shared widely by trial lawyers, says Paul Nunes, a litigator with Underberg & Kessler LLP and a county bar association member who wholeheartedly supports any effort Wolford might make to rein in legal advertising. Nunes sees no one better qualified than Wolford to lead the charge.

In the lead

He has faced Wolford as an opponent and stood next to him as co-counsel, Nunes says. In either circumstance, Wolford is the same.
“You know if (Wolford) tells you something, it’s money in the bank,” Nunes says. “You don’t need to immediately get it in writing. He is an ideal person to represent the profession as bar association president. He doesn’t need to project an image. All he needs to do is be himself.”
Nunes shares Wolford’s frustration with the public’s badly distorted image of lawyers. Nunes, who has put out several albums of children’s music under the name Vincent, once put together a full-day program for elementary school children in which he tried to give them a picture of what lawyers do. He had the children play-act courtroom and other legal situations and at the end had a question period.
“It broke my heart. I mean it was literally heartbreaking for me that so many of them wanted to know why so many people hate lawyers,” Nunes says. The shyster or shark image, which Nunes believes advertising helps fuel, is galling because “people will never hear about so much of the good work we do.”
It is an irony that the most masterful legal coups of top litigators such as Wolford are often not made in showboating courtroom performances but in quiet, behind-the-scenes work to convince clients to settle cases. A mark of success in such cases is that no one who is not directly involved in those disputes ever hears about them.
For Wolford, who heads a small practice and has not eased up on his caseload, to give up his time to take on the bar association presidency is a tremendous sacrifice, Harter, Secrest & Emery LLP litigator Kenneth Payment says.
“It’s a lot harder for someone at a small firm who doesn’t have a lot of associates to turn things over to to take on the responsibility,” he says.
Though county bar association presidents serve a one-year term, the volunteer position is a three-year commitment in which candidates put in a year as president-elect and a year as past president.

Big to small

Wolford, 62, is managing partner of Wolford & Leclair LLP, an eight-lawyer, five-partner litigation boutique firm that does mostly commercial work but also handles a bit of every type of law ranging from criminal cases to personal injury work.
While it not as widely known among non-lawyers as it is among some of the larger local firms, Wolford & Leclair is well thought of among attorneys. The firm gets a lot of its work on referral from lawyers at firms such as Harris Beach LLP and Harter, Secrest, and Nixon Peabody LLP, where Wolford used to be a partner.
“It’s a small town and often the big firms are working for the same clients. It’s not unusual for them to have a conflict that keeps them from litigating the case, so they call us in,” Wolford says. “We don’t do anything but litigation and when we wrap up a case, we’re done with it. So they come to us.”
Wolford swears he left Nixon Peabody in 1993 after some 20 years at the firm at the insistence of his daughter, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth, now 37, had just graduated from law school at the time, Wolford says. Starting his own firm so he could hire her as an associate “was the only way we could get her to come back to Rochester to live.”
Elizabeth is now a partner of Wolford & Leclair. Wolford’s son, James, 34, a former Monroe County assistant district attorney, is an associate at his father’s firm. John Wolford, 35, the middle child of Wolford and his wife, Beatrice, is a former U.S. Air Force and commercial-airline pilot who works for a pharmaceutical firm.
A Gates native, Wolford attended local Catholic parochial schools. He was a member of the McQuaid Jesuit High School class of 1959, often cited as an incubator for an unusually high number of local power brokers such as former Monroe County Executive Jack Doyle and Rochester Business Alliance Inc. CEO Thomas Mooney.
Wolford, who used to deliver the paper to his wife’s family, first met her when both were sixth-grade students. They started dating when they were in high school, and they were married in 1965 a week before he started law school at SUNY at Buffalo’s Buffalo Law School. She worked as a science teacher in Buffalo until he graduated with a law degree in 1968.
Wolford did his undergraduate work in history and economics at John Carroll University, a Jesuit school in Cleveland, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in 1963. He followed with an MBA from SUNY Buffalo in 1965. A business-law course taken as part of his MBA studies started Wolford thinking about a legal career. After he finished the MBA, he went right into the Buffalo law school.
“I’m sure my parents thought I would never do anything but be a perpetual student,” he says.
Wolford’s first job out of law school was as an associate in Rochester for the Buffalo-based firm of Jaeckle, Fleischmann & Mugel LLP. After some two months of doing the kind of catch-all assignments green, first-year associates pull, he applied for and got a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in Rochester.
The Rochester U.S. attorney’s office then consisted of one lawyer who essentially handled everything. For Wolford, who suddenly found himself arguing cases ranging from criminal prosecutions to foreclosures, it was an immersion course in trial law.
“I had taken a trial-practice course in law school and that was it,” Wolford says.
He reported to a chief in Buffalo, but mostly was left on his own to plan and execute federal prosecutions in Rochester.
All of his cases as a federal prosecutor were argued before U.S. District Court Judge Harold Burke, a Roosevelt administration appointee who was known as a fair but demanding stickler for proper procedure and who was not inclined to give lawyers, even young prosecutors, much leeway.
“He was fine as long as you were prepared,” says Wolford of Burke. “If you weren’t prepared, that was another matter.”
Cases on Wolford’s watch at the U.S. attorney’s office included a much-publicized draft-resistance incident in which a group of protesters who became known as the Flower City 8 broke into the local Selective Service office and vandalized files.
This was some three years after the infamous Chicago 7 case in which U.S. District Court Judge Julius Hoffman was taunted by his unrelated namesake, Abbie Hoffman. During that trial, Judge Hoffman, apparently unaware of or unconcerned with the negative racial implications some might draw from the move, ordered the only black defendant, Bobby Seale, be chained.
Though the Flower City 8 consistently addressed Burke as Mr. Burke rather than as your honor during their trial, Burke “was smarter about (it) than Judge Hoffman; he never rose to the bait,” Wolford says.
Though sympathetic jurors wept and covered their eyes as the verdict was read at the Flower City 8 trial, Wolford won a conviction against the protesters.

Moving to the private sector

After a roughly two-year stint as a public prosecutor, Wolford moved to Nixon Peabody in late 1971. He became a partner in the firm’s trial group some five years later and at one time headed a white-collar-crime defense group there.
Since starting Wolford & Leclair a little over a decade ago, Wolford has stayed true to his original plan-keeping the firm small and focused on trial work and dispute resolution. The law firm has no plans to start anything like an estates and trust division, tax department or to start doing real estate work.
In addition to starting the legal advertising task force as bar association president, Wolford has commissioned a committee on minority hiring and retention among Rochester law firms.
Like many middle-market U.S. regions, the Rochester area employs minority lawyers at lower concentrations than minority percentages of the general population, he says. And those that do work here are often wooed to larger markets such as Washington, D.C., Boston and New York City. Former Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. chairman and CEO Thomas Richards, an attorney and former Nixon Peabody partner, is heading the minority task force.
Between the three-year MCBA commitment, his caseload as a trial lawyer and his duties as Wolford & Leclair managing partner, Wolford does not have much time for extracurricular activities.
“I try to golf and I try to play tennis, but I’m not very good,” Wolford says.
Relaxing with his wife at their Victor home and spending what getaway time he can manage at a vacation camp on Lake Placid accounts for most of his downtime.
But Wolford is not complaining. He has not thought much about retiring or even slowing down.
“I plan to keep going as long as I can,” he says.
(rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

12/03/04 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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