West Michigan firms sweep the first Chambers High Net Worth guide

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The well-respected global legal ranking firm Chambers has launched a guide about professionals who service High Net Worth individuals called Chambers HNW.

And, based on the findings for this initial year, West Michigan is the place for the wealthy to find a lawyer.

Miller Johnson, Varnum, and Warner Norcross and Judd are the only three firms in the state of Michigan recommended in the inaugural issue.

Though all three started out in, and are firmly embedded in the culture of, Grand Rapids, each has offices in other Michigan cities (Miller Johnson only in Kalamazoo), and the ranked attorneys from the firms say that they work with HNW individuals Michigan-wide.

What constitutes HNW is hard to pin down, with online sources indicating over $1 million in net worth exclusive of the primary residence, but many attorneys deeming it much higher — $10 million or even more.

Chambers HNW issued rankings in three different professional areas for Michigan. In addition to Wealth Law, included were Accountants and Tax Advisers, and Wealth Managers.

Grand Rapids fared well in those categories as well, with both of the accounting/tax firms (BDO USA, Plante Moran) and three of the four wealth management firms (Legacy Trust, Merrill Lynch, and
Northern Trust) having offices in the city. The fourth, Greenleaf Trust, has an office in Kalamazoo.

And although West Michigan figures prominently in the individual attorney rankings (with an attorney from Mika Meyers included as well), there are other firms from around the state represented in the list.

Chambers has been around since 1990, and according to its website (www.chambersandpartners.com) had a substantial lead over other ranking entities in a recent survey published in International In-House Counsel, with 51% of responding in-house attorneys choosing Chambers versus 22% for the next-nearest competitor and only 14% for Martindale-Hubbell.

The London-based Chambers employs over 150 staff people in its research department.

According to Warner Norcross and Judd’s Mark Harder, who responded to the application process on Warner’s behalf, “One of the elements that’s different with Chambers, and I think really speaks to the caliber of its rankings, is that they spoke directly to the clients. They reached out to us, and we were asked to submit up to 20 people that they could interview about us. With others you’re ranked by your peers, but Chambers goes directly to the client.”

Qualities on which Chambers bases its individual attorney rankings include “technical legal ability, professional conduct, client service, commercial astuteness, diligence, commitment, and other qualities most valued by the client.”

Michigan lawyers who ranked highly enough to be included were: Band 1 (the “best of the best”): Robert J Brower (Miller Johnson), Henry Grix (Dickinson Wright, in its Troy office), and Marilyn Lankfer (Varnum); Band 2: Christopher Edgar (Miller Johnson), Dirk Hoffius (Varnum), Shaheen Imami (The Prince Law Firm, Oakland County), Thomas Kyros (Varnum), Susan Meyers (Warner Norcross and Judd), and Lauretta Murphy (Miller Johnson); Band 3: Carl Dufendach (Warner Norcross and Judd), Mark Harder (Warner Norcross and Judd), Neil Kimball (Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones), Douglas Mielock (Foster, Swift, Collins and Smith, Lansing office); David Skidmore (Warner Norcross), and Robert Tiplady (Dykema Gossett, out of Ann Arbor).

Dickinson Wright’s office in Phoenix was also recognized in the Arizona listings. (Different states rank different professions; for example, Arizona ranks private banks.)

When four of the recognized attorneys were asked, none felt certain about why West Michigan excelled, and some said there might be different results once Chambers HNW has been around a while.

But they did have some ideas. Laurie Murphy, who is the chair of Miller Johnson’s Probate and Estate Planning practice area, conjectured that attorneys in this area are exposed to a wide range of HNW individuals’ needs, and are therefore able to hone their skills so that they have more to offer clients. “What is  particularly unique about West Michigan, maybe about Michigan in general, is the charitable inclinations of people here. People really do seem to feel like the wealth they have has been entrusted to them, and they have a very deep responsibility to use that for the community,” she says.

“Because that involves a lot of complexity and strategy, we’ve developed a lot of knowledge about how to come up with a result that’s fair according to the Internal Revenue Code but is also the most beneficial for the legacy a client wants to leave.”

Harder agrees. “There’s clearly a significant community of wealthy individuals in West Michigan and I?think that contributes to raising the game of the lawyers here,” he says. “But another factor might be that at Warner Norcross we have a long history of leadership in the State Bar.

“I also know there is a trend nationally for large law firms to shed  their estate planning practices, even some of the Detroit-based firms, but I mostly just look at this and think it says a lot about how our clients feel about us, which is very gratifying.”

Says Tom Kyros, who is also Varnum’s Executive Partner, “I don’t know a lot about what the Eastern Michigan law firms do, so all I can speak to is our neighborhood. We have a lot of wealth and a lot of philanthropically-motivated families.

“They say half of family businesses fail when the second generation takes over, but frankly, if you look around at West Michigan, we have a much higher rate of success than that. I would suggest maybe we are outside of the norm in having families who say, let’s plan for the long term — let’s preserve this for the kids and maintain this magic dust for our employees.”

“I was a bit surprised there weren’t any firms from the east side of the state because I know there are very good firms over there,” says Susie Meyers of Warner Norcross. “But then, part of me wasn’t surprised about Warner Norcross. We have 20 attorneys and seven paralegals in our estate planning group, and we think it’s the largest in the state. It’s good to know that all the work we’ve done is paying off.”

Chambers HNW published some of the client comments received, and all agreed it was great to read them.

“It’s always a pleasure to be recognized in this way, and it’ll be nice to have a few of my clients see that maybe they picked the right guy to help them out,” Kyros says with a smile.

“I do a lot of transition planning and help negotiate family business policies,  and I also do pre-nuptial agreements, and all of those tend to be pretty emotional,” says Meyers. “So this is a nice testament to all the hard work and dedication and energy that goes into that. “And we’re in good company with Varnum and Miller Johnson,” she adds.

“With charitable giving and with  community-minded family business transition, there are sophisticated things done in West Michigan not necessarily being done in other places I think,” commented Murphy. “It’s really an honor to be a part of that, and to have it recognized.”

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