Dell Graham: Gainesville’s oldest law firm is finding new life downtown

“We are a small-town firm with a depth of service,” said Dell Graham law firm Managing Partner John Jopling. “We’re as close to a one-stop shop for the business community as you’re going to find, and we know how to keep businesses out of the courtroom.”

Dell Graham is a 10 lawyer firm with six of those 10 having board certification in civil trial, education, healthcare, and wills, trusts and estates. It is Gainesville’s oldest operating law firm, and one of a half-dozen of the oldest firms in Florida, having roots back 140 years. It has been in continuous existence in Gainesville within two blocks of its current downtown location since it was established, and has served the business community for the whole of its existence.

Jopling, Dell Graham Partner David Delaney and attorney Ryan Gilbert sat down with The Business Report to talk about how the firm has survived for so long and where it’s headed next.

How has Dell Graham managed to stick around for over a century?

John – We all like each other.

David – We truly are a collaborative team. We go to lunch together, and I know I can stick my head in John’s office and ask for advice. Nowadays there aren’t that many true collaborative law firms.

John – There are advantages to a firm with history. Judges know us, Florida knows us and we’ve established that credibility. Six sitting judges have passed through our doors on their way to the bench. The modern firm was established by Bill Graham and S.T. Dell, and S.T. was the city attorney, so we’ve had a long relationship with the city. Joe (Wilcox, former Dell Graham attorney) began to defend Shands when it opened in the ‘50s. I’ve defended Shands since it went independent. A big part of our longevity is our commitment to the area. We’re focused on doing things right.

We’re in sync with a lot of our clients. Living in the same community fosters those relationships, and that’s a big part of litigation. Knowing local judges, jurors, and the community like we do is a huge advantage. We’ve seen other lawyers come in here from out of town, and they just don’t know juries here like we do.

We also take a lot lot of pride in, and have worked very hard to maintain our ethics, and we hired one of the first woman lawyers in Florida, had the first woman partner in Florida, and hired the first African American attorney in Gainesville.

How proactive has Dell Graham been about adopting new technology?

David – UF is a big factor there. Law clerks down University Avenue, we teach them how to be lawyers and they teach us how technology is affecting the law now. We’ve actually found out that we seem to be on the cutting edge. I’m more comfortable pulling a book off of the shelf, but we’ve been virtually paperless for 5 years or more. The legal industry is slow-moving and doesn’t change much.

Ryan – I’m grateful that we’re willing to adopt new technology. I wouldn’t be comfortable in a firm that’s hesitant to adopt new technology. The firms that are are going to be left behind.

John – It definitely helps in medical malpractice cases. In one case we had an expert witness on the other side and when we began to anticipate taking the deposition it took about three minutes to search Google and find a Supreme Court decision calling the expert witness incompetent.

Ryan – We would have had to pay someone for hours of research.

How has Dell Graham come to focus on the areas it does, and where are you going next?

John – It’s evolved out of the community we serve. We’ve been shaped by the community. We’ve had relationships with some insurance companies for 30 years. It’s a two-fold process: we listen to our clients and anticipate their needs. They can get what they need here.

As for health care, law and medicine are two old professions, and they tend to be traditional in a lot of ways. Health care providers are comfortable bringing their medical malpractice cases to us because we share a lot of values with them.

Ryan – There’s a lot of excitement now in Gainesville around startups. We’re excited about seeing Gainesville become a place where new businesses can start and grow. And we’re helping them to start and grow and take the next step.

John – We don’t get as much publicity for helping set up pension plans or employment agreements, but that’s the area we’re expanding into. Legal practice is in general in transition, and there are fewer and fewer civil trials. The future is going to be more on the transactional side, like setting up businesses, and helping clients before they ever get to trial. Having people skilled in that puts you in a stronger position and we’re working to grow the practice in that direction.

How has Dell Graham managed to cultivate a high reputation?

John – We go out and represent our clients well, and we do it effectively and ethically. The reputation takes care of itself. In 2013, three of our lawyers received Super Lawyer designations, and you don’t get that designation without a lot of peer review. Our peers are our adversaries, so they’re saying, “Delaney really knows what he’s doing.” It’s also worth noting that less than 6 percent of Florida lawyers have board certification. We have people who rise to the top.

We offer all the services a small business needs in one law firm, and the alternative would be to bounce around or go halfway across the state. We’re highly cost-effective, and we don’t take on work we don’t have experience in. But we think it’s important for lawyers to know what they don;t know, so we’re all involved in professional groups.

David – In Gainesville, people assume that an expert is someone with a briefcase and an out of town address.

John – You don’t have to go to Jacksonville or Miami. You can go to the guys that have relationships in the area and expertise in local business.

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