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Business Lawyers for Business People.

Dunn DeSantis Walt & Kendrick Gather Momentum and Carve a Unique Path Forward.

Assembling a Dream Team of Business Lawyers

Nearly three years ago Dunn DeSantis Walt & Kendrick opened its doors, after integrating three longstanding Southern California practice groups into one firm, bringing together a talented group of experienced attorneys under one umbrella. But the six founding partners knew—and worked well with—each other in various ways prior to the formation of the new firm.
Kevin DeSantis and Beth Dunn have worked together for 30 years and brought Jim McFaul and David Cardone onto their team more than a decade ago. Together, they collaborated with Chris Walt on various matters for many years. The final piece to the puzzle—veteran Orange County business lawyer John Kendrick—rounded out the dream team roster, and these well-acquainted teammates formally opened the doors on their new firm on September 1, 2016.
Managing Partner DeSantis reflects that “the team came together at the right time.” Focusing on the synergy of the group—and its three Southern California offices—he explains that the success and growth since 2016 is a credit to the efforts of “like-minded professionals who truly enjoy working together.” But the real focus is on servicing the firm’s business clientele.
“DDWK delivers legal services on par with the largest law firms, but we do so in a personal, custom-tailored way. While our clients have come to us in a variety of ways over the course of many years, we find that they return—and become longstanding clients—because they recognize that our way of practicing law is, at core, fundamentally just a little bit different. It’s the responsiveness, our flexibility, and a personalized attention to detail that, I believe, distinguishes us.”
The firm focuses on representing businesses in transactional matters, commercial litigation, all species of employment law, real estate, and intellectual property matters. With two dozen experienced attorneys, the firm can “punch above our weight class,” DeSantis explains. “We are in practical effect a big firm, but on a smaller scale. In many respects, we are focused on the same suite of services available at much larger firms, but we do so our way, and at a price point that is more accessible to local, closely-held businesses.” By playing a role akin to “outside general counsel” to a wide variety of businesses, the firm’s stability is buoyed.
The concept of being “outside general counsel” was developed by DeSantis while working for several decades at a boutique litigation-only firm. Stymied by the one-case-at-a-time approach of a litigation-only practice, DeSantis moved in a different direction. “I developed different and much deeper relationships with clients that went beyond just handling litigation. They regularly asked me for help in other areas, including risk management, strategy, and contract drafting.” He explains that the practice shifted to “keeping the clients out of trouble, rather than getting them out of trouble.”
That paradigm shift signaled a sea change in practice, and in developing client relationships. “I prefer that our clients think to call upon us as a resource to assist with their business needs, rather than as a ‘lawyer,’ which to many people remains a necessary evil to be called upon only when there’s a problem. And so, we focus collaboratively with our clients on how to avoid risk, minimize risk, and transfer risk, the big picture goal being to pursue growth and success, and avoiding and escaping litigation at minimal cost.” Founding partner Cardone echoes those thoughts, “From the beginning we wanted to take a different approach, to work with our business clients but with a different and more progressive philosophy. And we have grown alongside our clients. Their success is important to us, but it is also critical to our own success.”

Making it Personal and Being Nimble

Taking a personal approach, a “one-on-one” approach, to client relationships is a focal point of the DDWK model. Being small allows for flexibility. “For example, in a litigation matter there might be a need for multiple attorneys from multiple disciplines. We are able to custom tailor our services to meet each client’s unique needs, because we have the resources, but we do so in a nimble, efficient way,” says DeSantis.
Barbara Mencer, marketing consultant and business development coach and principal of Rainmaker Strategies, Inc., sees DDWK as a firm with a unique approach to client relationships. “One of the things that DDWK does differently than other firms is approaching clients in a holistic way. Typically, law firms approach a client’s legal needs as a ‘matter,’ whether it be transactional or litigation, etc. But the DDWK approach is unique: The firm focuses first on the relationship with the client, to gain an understanding of the whole, and they communicate with the client about goals for each individual matter. In that way, it is made clear to the client that the firm is focused first on their overall enterprise. It’s understanding the industry the client is in, and the challenges and unique forces they operate in, as part of approaching legal services. The DDWK team looks carefully to identify what is a win for the client. It’s the business ‘as a whole’ and the client as whole rather than just ‘here’s the problem let’s fix it and move on.’ And from my perspective that is a very big difference.” Commenting on the firm’s growth and success, Mencer observes, “Clearly it’s resonating with clients.”

Building a Sustainable Law Firm

A key building block of DDWK’s current and future success is the concept of creating a sustainable, multi-generational law firm. Before opening its doors, the new firm was already focused on how it will evolve, and how leadership will be groomed to continue the firm’s hallmark approach. Young lawyers are empowered to develop clients and build sustainable practices as part of the firm’s plan for long-term sustainability. And it starts with recruiting talent to the firm.
The partners stress the high caliber of the firm’s young attorneys, people who have worked at or have the credentials to work at larger firms, but who have made the strategic choice to build a practice at DDWK. DeSantis says, “We look for people who truly understand that DDWK is to be a ‘forever home.’ We’re not looking for people who see us as a stepping stone in their career. We’re looking for people who want to be here and who can see themselves retiring here. We say that at every interview. That’s the attitude and commitment we’re looking for. We want them to say, ‘This is the best place to work in southern California for a young lawyer.’”

A Philosophy of Sharing

The focus on sustainability of the firm is reinforced at every turn. DDWK offers their young lawyers unique opportunities to forge direct, substantive relationships with the firm’s clients. “We find that attorney candidates are attracted to our business model of sharing clients,” Cardone explains, emphasizing that “We genuinely work to help young attorneys grow their own books of business. The specter of having lots of ‘big firm experience’ but no book of business makes our approach a breath of fresh air to the beleaguered associate who is used to billing 2000 plus hours on a senior partner’s clients’ files, but who has had no primary case-handling experience and even less client interaction.” This approach is an essential component of professional development of its younger lawyers in a novel way. In most firms, client relationships are hoarded by senior lawyers, and jealously guarded. Young lawyers are discouraged from developing their own clients, yet simultaneously told that growing a book of business is essential to partnership opportunities. By building a team of independent, intelligent thinkers who are truly committed to growing a suite of clients through collaboration, DDWK is able to confidently deploy all of its attorneys knowing that, through the recruiting and hiring process, and with the benefit of teamwork, any task can effectively be accomplished in line with each client’s needs and budgetary guidelines.
DeSantis says, “We don’t set any business generation metrics for our young attorneys. There isn’t a certain number of clients they must bring in, or dollar amounts we expect in terms of revenue generation. Instead, we give them encouragement and tools. We provide Barbara’s one-on-one client development and professional development coaching services to all the attorneys in the office. She works with each attorney to develop detailed plans for each attorney to grow alongside the firm. And to that end, Barbara has played an essential, important role in all our success to date."
DeSantis explains that the firm’s young lawyers are told early how important it is to develop meaningful relationships with the business owners who are DDWK’s core clientele. “We want our attorneys to understand that for the long-term sustainability of their careers they need to develop those relationships, whether that’s by earning the trust of the firm’s existing clients or by bringing in their own clients and having the support of the firm in doing that.”
Founding partner Jim McFaul explains it similarly, “It is essential to our business model that young attorneys have the skills and confidence needed to handle opportunities rarely shared with associates at larger firms. And we also have no 'eat what you kill' attitude. Instead, we promote teamwork at all levels, and when the firm does well, everybody does well. We reject the old-school concept of holding your clients close to your vest and excluding young lawyers from meaningful client interaction.” DeSantis sums it up best: “We banned the use of the phrase ‘my client’ here. All clients are clients of the firm. I think if you asked most people in the hallways here, ‘Whose client is that?’ the answer would be, ‘I don’t know. It’s our client.’ We’re attempting to set a precedent that the focus must be on the client not on whose client it is.”
Cardone adds, “We wanted to create—and have created—a place where sharing in the hard work results in everyone sharing in the rewards. There’s no individual success; it’s all group success.”

The Team that Makes the Team Work

DDWK’s behind-the-scenes staff is a key part of how consistent professional services are delivered every day. Most of the firm’s staff has been with the team for a dozen years or more. Attorney and staff turnover is very low. Solid roots and an experienced team empowered and encouraged to work collaboratively has led to nothing but the promise of future success. The firm has more than doubled in size in less than three years. In addition to offices in downtown San Diego, La Jolla, and Irvine, the firm has a presence in Dallas and will soon be opening an office in Phoenix. And while growth is not itself a goal, a growing roster of loyal clients signals that the firm’s appetite to acquire new talent will also continue to grow.
The law firm that came together in pieces has carved out a unique position in serving business clients, and quickly taken a leadership position in a diverse and highly competitive legal marketplace. DeSantis reflects on DDWK’s first three years saying, “From day one, our goal was to be exactly where we are today: A group of talented attorneys who enjoy working together, sustained by a group of loyal clients who appreciate our unique way of practicing law.”

Contact
Dunn DeSantis Walt & Kendrick
750 B Street, Suite 2620
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 373-0457
www.ddwklaw.com

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