Name: Walter McKee

Age: 51

Title: Owner

Company: McKee Law

About: Augusta-based law firm specializing in litigation.

Website: mckeelawmaine.com

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

Right now we have the enviable problem of having a great deal of work with the challenge of making sure to keep on top of it every week. We’re a small law firm with four attorneys and four full-time staff and one half-time staff.

For the Augusta area though, we are a “medium sized” law firm. We have an extensive client base, and because of all of the litigation we do, we’re on trial lists all over the state and we are in court all the time. Scheduling is dictated by the courts, and trying to make sure to be in all of the many courts we have to be in each and every week for all of our clients is really dizzying sometimes. But it’s a good problem to have as I really love litigation and being in court.

I first started practicing law in the Augusta area in 1994 at what was then Lipman & Katz. We had a fairly large firm with excellent attorneys and staff. I opened my own practice in 2012 with just two staff people, but since then have added more attorneys and staff.

I could clearly build out my firm and add more attorneys and staff, but I would then have to become a full-time manager and would miss to going to court and trying cases. So I will just keep doing what I’m doing and respond to the challenges here of a very busy litigation practice in the only way I know how — get up at 3 in the morning every day, organize my schedule in the most efficient way possible, and continue to be open and available to all of my clients as the need arises.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given?

Always, always, call it like you see it when it comes to giving advice to clients. That’s general wisdom I’ve learned.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen or heard about attorneys who have told clients, “You have an excellent case,” when they don’t, or “You don’t have to worry about anything,” when clearly that is not the case.

I tell every client I meet with that I will review their case, and then at the appropriate time I will tell them exactly what I think. It is really no different than going to a doctor. You would want your doctor to run all the tests and complete an evaluation and then tell you exactly what he or she believes is the problem and how best to address it. As much as it would be nice to hear from a doctor that “you’re totally fine,” when that is not the case you want to know what the problem is.

Being up front and honest with clients — whether their case is good or bad — is critical and countless times I have had clients tell me that they really appreciated me being candid with them right from the start because, after all, it is their case and not the attorney’s case. They deserve to know the real deal.

But I also received two other pieces of great advice from my former partners.

Sumner Lipman taught me years ago that whether you as the attorney want to try the case or not, it’s really not up to you; it’s up to your client. While you may not want to try the case for whatever reason, it’s the client’s call and sometimes you just have to give the client advice about what to do. Then, if they want to have a trial, just go ahead and try the case. It seems so very simple, but often I see attorneys pushing clients to settle cases when what the client really wants is his or her day in court.

Roger Katz taught me about resolving cases in the best way possible. Roger is an incredibly talented trial lawyer, but he was also exceptional at figuring out a solution so that complicated, messy disputes did not have to be tried to the detriment of all parties. Roger’s advice was that more often than not, there was a way to work out an agreement that can be a win-win for both sides. He was right.

I often say, Sumner taught me how to fight the war, and Roger taught me how to make the peace. Invaluable lessons.

How do you foster creativity in yourself or your staff?

I would like to think there’s a lot of creativity in the law, but often there really is not. For the attorneys here, I try to foster creativity in simply indicating that everyone should be open to new legal concepts, theories and ideas.

All too often, especially as one has been practicing over the course of many years, attorneys get into to a rut of thinking about how a certain case should go, or should resolve. I often learn a great deal from our newer attorneys, just because I try not to just think about the old days and how certain cases have been handled over the years. It’s very helpful for me to keep my ears open and not fall into that same rut.

When it comes to staff, my view is that the best way to foster creativity is give particular assignments, and then just let them go ahead and do it without a lot of micromanaging. I am incredibly lucky to have a really top-notch, smart and motivated staff. I am convinced that they do their best work when I give clear assignments and let them execute as they see fit. They always deliver.

What’s your biggest fear?

Can I keep up this pace? I really do love my work. I am a “Thank God it’s Monday” kind of person. But I also really enjoy time with my wife and two college-age daughters, as well as my extended family. It is, as always, about balance. I think that by and large, I have done a good job with that balance but the adrenaline-charged world of litigation takes its toll some times.

I really haven’t thought of a succession plan. I’m healthy. I run 4 to 6 miles a day, four to six days a week. This is my 30th year doing that. I will just keep doing exactly what I am doing until things change. We have other great attorneys here, and part of my long-term thinking is to put together a team and continue to add to that so that if I were to leave tomorrow, the firm would be able to keep going.

How does the business side of your work differ from how you thought it would be?

When I started practicing back in 1993, I was fresh out of college and law school. I had held a number of jobs in the usual course, but nothing of any real consequence. My first real job was as an attorney and I quickly had to determine how to not only best serve my clients but also to make sure that I could keep my practice going.

In my early years I believed that if I sent a client a bill they would simply pay it immediately without question. I got a bit of a rude awakening, but I was able to figure out how best to provide clear expectations as to what the cost would be and make sure that everyone was on the same page in terms of how those costs would be paid.

For every hour of my work, there are many hours of work done by my secretary and legal assistant, and all of the other people, like the person who handles the CDs of documents sent to clients, and the person who answers the phone. That allows me to focus on the specific duties as an attorney. If I were to do those tasks, it would be far more expensive. What makes me effective is the ability to focus on the true, legal part of the work and not the administrative duties. I couldn’t do what I do without the staff.

Many firms are contracting that. Over the last 25 years, firms have had less and less staff and lawyers are handling more administrative tasks. From a business perspective, that makes sense, but the quality of the work suffers. I have an old-guard firm, and we are fully staffed. Even in the very large firms, you don’t see the staff you did 25 or 30 years ago.

I am very upfront with clients on (cost) starting from the very first meeting. It’s always very uncomfortable to be working on a case, and the client is falling behind on the bill. It doesn’t help anyone to have a situation like that, and it can be avoided with an honest conversation from the get-go about what it’s going to cost for representation. I recognize that the lawyer business is not inexpensive at all, and I tell every single client just that and make no bones about it.

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