Denis & David Fitzgibbons:
Fitzgibbons Law Offices
Interview by Brett Eisele and Rock Earle – Holiday 2015
GC LIVING: Where were you two born?
DENIS: Estherville, Iowa.
GC LIVING: What is your first memory of growing up there?
DENIS: We had a forest and river behind our house, I remember running around in there.
GC LIVING: So … it’s the same story as everybody else, you had a forest in the back yard? And of course you had a paper route and delivered in the snow?
DAVID: We did, actually.
GC LIVING: Obviously your first years were spent growing up in Estherville; when did the family move to Casa Grande and what grade were you in school?
DAVID: 8th grade.
DENIS: I started in 5th grade here at St. Anthony’s.
GC LIVING: Your mom and dad decided to move out of Estherville, why?
DAVID: My dad had rheumatoid arthritis and he needed to be in a warmer, drier climate.
GC LIVING: Really? And of all places why’d they choose Casa Grande?
DAVID: They we’re from Estherville which is a small town so they wanted to be in a rural community. They came out, multiple times, looked in Yuma, Sierra Vista and even Tucson because at the time Tucson was small enough.
DENIS: When they drove up from Tucson, they took the first exit to Casa Grande (now Jimmie Kerr Blvd.) and turned right around and went back to Tucson! They were supposed to meet I think with Tom McCarville or Tom Spies, another Iowan at First Interstate Bank.
GC LIVING: Why were they meeting Mr. Spies from First Interstate bank?
DAVID: He was an Iowa guy meaning there was an Iowa connection. Tom came here from Iowa.
GC LIVING: And he introduced them to Tom McCarville?
DAVID: Yes. Spies said to my dad, “I understand you’re a Creighton University grad. There’s another Creighton grad here who’s an attorney and his name is Tom McCarville.” The McCarvilles were from Fort Dodge, Iowa and Tom had attended Creighton as well.
GC LIVING: Your dad and two uncles, all practiced law?
DENIS: Our uncles Leo and Fran practiced law for a long time in the Northwest part Iowa. My dad is the youngest in the family and so he had joined them after the Korean War and started practicing with them.
DAVID: There was a fourth brother and he became a doctor.
GC LIVING: Were they just country lawyers or did they have a specific type of law they practiced?
DAVID: I think they would have said they were country lawyers.
GC LIVING: And again, all three of them work together at one point?
GC LIVING: So what was the name of the firm?
DAVID: Fitzgibbons Brothers.
DENIS: They all grew up in … they grew up in Armstrong. My … our granddad was like the conductor of the railroad in Armstrong, which is 10 miles from Estherville. Our grandparents also ran the theater and my grandma was a teacher.All the children were born four years apart because my grandma wanted to make sure they all got out of college. She didn’t want two kids in college at the same time because she knew she and my grandfather couldn’t afford it.
GC LIVING: It was all pre-planned?
DENIS: As much as it could be for an Irish Catholic family in the early 1900s.
GC LIVING: At what age did your dad start realizing he had to get out of the snow? Was he still a young man?
DAVID: I think he was around ‘42. My dad’s got 7 kids and the doctors told him you have to leave the cold because of his rheumatoid arthritis. He’d been practicing law with his brothers in Estherville for 15 years. At the time, Arizona required every lawyer regardless of experience to take the bar. So he worked as a law clerk until he passed the Arizona bar exam.
GC LIVING: Where’d he work?
DAVID: At Stanfield, McCarville, Coxon, and Cole. And so he worked as a law clerk supporting seven kids that way.
DAVID: And, the pictures of him passing the bar all have his hands wrapped up because of the writing required for the bar exam caused his arthritis to flare and his arms to swell.
GC LIVING: What’d your mom do?
DENIS: Our mother, Agnes, was a nurse, but she ran the house. (laughs) She was raising the kids, she had seven kids.
GC LIVING: And your dad was surviving on pay as a law clerk before he took the bar?
DAVID: They had saved money to come out.
GC LIVING: Where’d y’all buy your first house?
DENIS: Rancho Grande. 1137 East Delano Drive
DAVID: From Harlyn Griffiths, Mi Casa Builders.
GC LIVING: You guys were way outside of town.
DAVID: Oh yeah.
GC LIVING: Because there was nothing between town and there.
DAVID: We walked home … seriously, had to walk home sometimes. (laughs)
GC LIVING: So you grew up in a very learned atmosphere. Did your Grandmother preach to you how important is to get your education?
DAVID: My … our grandmother ran the show. There was no question from anyone’s perspective. My grandma told her boys what to do and they did it. We were around our grandma before she died, I don’t remember how old I was when she died, but it was before we’d left Iowa. She was stern! She expressed clearly to the older grandkids her expectations. And then, you know, in our house too, our mom and dad were focused on education. There was no question whether you’d go to college, it was just where and when. And, it was that way from the time we were little kids.Every child knew they were going to college.
GC LIVING: Did all your uncles attend Creighton?
DENIS: No, our uncle Leo was at Iowa. My uncle Fran was Notre Dame. Dad and Uncle Bob were Creighton.
GC LIVING: So how did your dad and Tom McCarville get along when your dad first came to Casa Grande?
DAVID: I think they got a long good. They were both Creighton guys, you know, Irish Catholic guys. Each had big families. Tom and JoAnne were very welcoming to our family.
GC LIVING: This was in the 70’s?
DENIS: Yes, we came out in ‘74.
GC LIVING: Did you two ever hang out in his office and find interest in law, want to find out what was going on?
DAVID: After football practice at high school or after whatever activity, how we got back home was we’d walk over to the office and get a ride. Some of it was by osmosis. You sit there and you see him, or hear him on the phone talking to somebody, trying to help somebodyand him getting all fired up and you thinking, “Hey. That’s something I think I could do.”
GC LIVING: Did you hear or see a lot of trials?
DAVID: Dad did a lot of trial work. It was a different practice back then. We say country lawyer, but again was Casa Grande country sized? I don’t know. But, he did every type of legal work under the sun and pretty much every attorney in town did everything under the sun.
GC LIVING: I was one of the lucky few that knew him. When did he leave Stanfield?
DAVID: ‘86 … I was out of law school by then. In ‘86 Frank Coxon went on the bench. Stanfield retired. Cole had already left to go over and join with O’Neil.
DAVID: And so Dad left. Dad, I and Bob Yates went up to Cottonwood Lane in the old Mahoney building at Kadota and Cottonwood Lane.
GC LIVING: Denis, where were you at the time?
DENIS: I had just graduated from college. I was ASU Law, so I was a first year student. I went to Columbia for undergrad.
GC LIVING: You went to Columbia, graduated, came back and finished law school at ASU. Why didn’t you want to stay back in an eastern law school?
DENIS: You know what? That’s a great questionI was accepted into Columbia law school late and so I wasn’t really sure because I wanted to be back here, but everyone told me I should stay and go to Columbia. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I had lunch with a lawyer in Phoenix, Frank Lewis, who was a Columbia undergrad and law grad and we talked about it… I thought Frank gave me great advice. He said, “Hey. If you want to be in politics or anything like that, you have to stay and go to Columbia.” He also told me if I wanted to practice law in the southwest, especially in Arizona and knew I wanted to be in Arizona, “I should go to ASU and get to know people. Get to know the lawyers you’re going to practice with.” And so I decided to stay in Arizona.I think it was great advice. I practiced in a firm in Phoenix. I practiced at Snell and Wilmer for several years.
GC LIVING: Did you clerk for them?
DENIS: Yes. I clerked for them after my second year of law school at ASU and then stayed on for four years or so and then came down and joined my dad and my brother.
GC LIVING: And that experience had to be good for you because you’re in a large firm.
DENIS: Snell and Wilmer was just a great atmosphere, a lot of Iowa, midwestern lawyers. A lot of great training went on there. They had some very fascinating cases at that time. They were national counsel for Ford at that time and did all the Bronco II rollover litigation all over the country. And so it was really a fascinating time, because it was right when the internet and computers were being first used in litigation.
But it was really opening a lot of doors for the plaintiffs lawyers, because now instead of just trying a case in Georgia and not knowing what Ford said in South Dakota in a case, these guys were able to all communicate, and were able to identify exactly what they got for answers in depositions, or discovery all across the country. So it was important for Ford to make sure they were consistent. And they needed a national counsel that oversaw all of that litigation around the country.
GC LIVING: And were you involved at all?
DENIS: Well, as a young lawyer, I did discovery type work.
GC LIVING: Meanwhile David you’re working with your Dad and have passed the bar?
DAVID: Passed the bar in ‘87 and right away started working with Dad. I was sitting here listening to Denis talk about his experiences starting out. I had different experiences. He mentioned doing the discovery work on the Bronco II litigation, which is all pre-computer, so it’s just paper pushing, voluminous paper pushing. And I just laugh, because my Dad, Yates and I saw litigation become a paper mill too in our cases.
GC LIVING: Well, where did you clerk?
DAVID: I worked over at the Pinal County Superior Courthouse as a clerk for Judge McBryde, Judge Don, Judge Bean.
GC LIVING: Now that had to be an experience.
DENIS: It was. They all had very different personalities.I was lucky enough after my first year of law school to clerk at the Pinal County Courthouse as well.
GC LIVING: David, you finished law school and you went right to work with your Dad?
DAVID: I did.
GC LIVING: What did he have you doing?
DAVID: Every type of law under the sun. I remember getting my bar license and on the Monday following that, I was doing depositions with six lawyers from Tucson and Phoenix.
GC LIVING: So your Dad threw you right under the bus.
DAVID: Or threw me right in the fire.He’d walk in and say, here’s your case, go over to Justice Court, you need to try it tomorrow… But that was the way he trained both of us. Obviously he was there to answer questions but you needed to figure out how to get it done.
GC LIVING: Did he at least let you second chair on a trial or two before you had to try the case?
DAVID: Well, it depended on the case that he thought you could handle. A Justice Court or City Court case, no, it was just go do it. But there were also cases in Superior Court that I went over and tried with him serving as his second chair. Dad would be first chair and he’d take most of the witnesses, and then I’d take some of the smaller witnesses. I’d start going through my questions and Dad would sit right there and still try to run the show. I’d start asking questions that he didn’t want me to ask. And he would start in on me … so there would be this jostling at counseling table!
The rule was whichever lawyer questioned the witness had to make the objections. I recall one case before Judge Bean that we both tried. My Dad would sit there and the other lawyer would be asking my witness questions and my Dad would be telling me: ‘objection, objection,’ but I didn’t want to object. I didn’t think it was a good objection, and finally Judge Bean stopped it and says, “Do one of you Fitzgibbons have an objection?”
GC LIVING: (laughs).
DAVID: “Senior apparently thinks you do.” Bean said. (laughs) Finally I had to move to the other side of the courtroom away from him because I just couldn’t hear anything but him.
GC LIVING: What are the other things you remember about your dad? Obviously he’s a good teacher. Was he good in the courtroom?
DAVID: Yes. And I think judges and his peers would say that he was very good in the courtroom. My dad was very passionate. If you were a client, you knew my dad, a), knew you and your case well and, b), cared deeply about you and your case. Sometimes, he’d scream at lawyers and others. He felt so passionately.
DENIS: It was nothing, as kids, this was always funny; you’d be sitting out in the lobby waiting to go home. My dad sometimes went to 5:15 Mass – – if he didn’t make it to 7:00 Mass. And so, we’d hearing him screaming, maybe cussing, at somebody on the phone, all of a sudden he’d come flying out the door, we’re going to be late for Mass.
GC LIVING: (laugh)
GC LIVING: I remember in his office there was a brick. What was that brick about?
DAVID: The brick, um … my grandfather, the original David Fitzgibbons, was the depot agent in Armstrong, Iowa. And so, that’s where Dad and his brothers grew up. Years later, they were going to tear down the depot, and one of Dad’s childhood friends from Armstrong went down and chopped out that brick, and then mounted it on this board-and sent it to him with a note, “I took this out of a spot I think your dad would have crossed daily when he was the depot agent”. And so he sent to him in Arizona and that meant a lot to dad.
GC LIVING: Did he like Arizona?
DENIS: Absolutely I think he did. I think he thought he brought a lot of opportunity, not only for himself but also for his kids. And I think he always was glad, obviously wasn’t happy about having the disease, but he never complained about it, never complained about his physical limitations but always knew he made the right decision to move out here. I think he felt, not only professionally for him, it was great, but it was also great for his kids.
DAVID: I just want to go back and add something to what Denis said. My dad loved being out here. There’s no question. He made great friends out here. You know, John Hemmings, Johnny O’Donnell, Eddie Higgenbotham, John McEvoy, Mel Anderson, Cecil Kinser, Tony Serrano, all those guys became very good friends of his. My dad, in terms of law practice, loved going over there to Florence to those judges he personally knew. It was a small tight-knit group. And you know, the bar was small then. My dad enjoyed a good relationship with other local attorneys too.
GC LIVING: Well, the day your dad passed away was a sad day in Casa Grande. Most everyone was touched by it bless his heart. Where did it go from there, as far as the two of you and the practice?
DAVID: We just… you know-
GC LIVING: You decided to carry the mantle-
DAVID: Yes, clearly. Then we were trying to figure what do we do here – because he’s always been the guy that ran everything. He’d given us things to do to prepare us to run the place, but the administration of the place had always been pretty much him and our mom. You know, mom did the payroll and did accounts payable.
DENIS: Lupe Mendez has been there since she was eighteen years old, with my dad. He hired her and now she’s our office manager. She runs the whole show.
DENIS: Well, just to piggyback on what David said, we knew that day was coming and some of the funniest conversations we ever had were trying to buy the practice from my Dad. And, thank God for Mel Anderson, because Mel Anderson ended up being our mediator during those discussions, because it was heated at times. And Mel was right next door at Henry & Horne.
GC LIVING: So he talked to your dad when you two were trying to work out a deal to buy the practice and it just wasn’t working?
DENIS: It wasn’t so much that it didn’t work, but we were sitting there and the price for his practice started going up exponentially and we finally got up and started walking out, and he’s like, where are you guys going? And we said this conversation’s getting too expensive for us and he says “sit your ass down”. (laughter)
DAVID: Because he was intense in everything, including the value of his own practice.
GC LIVING: Who drew up the papers?
DAVID: We shook hands.
DENIS: We shook hands, and we’ve honored it.
DAVID: My dad died and we paid our mom. Mel was in the negotiations, he knew what the terms were, and that’s the way we did it.
GC LIVING: Did your mom stay on for a while and do your books?
DAVID: For a while.
DENIS: It kept her busy after Dad passed.
GC LIVING: Because you two were living out on your own now, I’m curious as to why you didn’t call it “Fitzgibbons Brothers”?
DAVID: You know, it’s funny. Tom Cole told us we should do that. That was advice he gave us, and it was probably good advice, but it would take our dad’s name out of it and you know … this is really his deal. And that’s kind of the way we see it today. I know our name’s on the door so it’s kind of disingenuous to say that it’s not us, but from our perspective, putting ‘Brothers’ on there took away from him and so we didn’t want to do that.
GC LIVING: How about some final thoughts or anecdotes?
DENIS: I think the one thing that has helped us through the years for the most part is consistency. Our family has been practicing law in this community for 40 years since ‘74. We’ve been blessed with great clients. We’ve been able to expand that.
I think our dad felt it was very important to produce high quality work at a very reasonable price. He always felt by doing that and bringing that to your client’s everyday was the best way to be successful. And he always felt that no matter where you practiced you could deliver high quality work if you put in the time. He was all about putting in the work.
One of the funny stories was, (laughs)…., I think right after I got down here, most of the other young attorneys in town had all gone out for golf one Friday afternoon at 3:00 pm. And so, Red and I thought, “Hey, let’s go join them.” So we did.
DENIS: (laughs) So the next day on Saturday we come in, we both come in to 2 mounds of files on our desk. I mean both of them were at least 2 ft. high with a note, “If you’ve got time for golf, you obviously have time for these files.” (laughs)
DAVID: and “I didn’t know you had so much time on your hands” Dad wrote.
I think that unfortunately my dad’s health was obviously robbed at a young age. So he didn’t get a chance to do those types of things that he loved to as when he was younger, but he could work. I think that’s what he knew he could do. It was important for him to provide for his family… and he did.
DENIS: He was incredibly gifted as a lawyer because he had worked so hard. He was a very deep person too. He had a very close relationship with his God and he understood who his God to be. And he had a very close relationship with my mother – when you move your kids out here to a community where you don’t know anyone, that’s important. I mean, thank goodness for John and Boots O’Donnell and Tom and JoAnne McCarville and their families.Those were big families in town … John and MaryAnn Hemmings, they all befriended him and Mom early and that was helpful.
But I think they grew incredibly close over time because of him having to do that. And so, I think one thing we take from him, is that consistency about trying to come to work every day and trying to be committed to the excellence that he demonstrated in not only how he practiced law but how he lived his life. It drives both of us every day in what we do and we’ve been fortunate to have great people as clients, but also with gifted people around us.
The people in our office are very, very good peoplethat have, stayed with us through thick and thin. Because I know after dad died, some people were wondering whether the payroll was going to get paid and it did.
DAVID: Denis said it well. I agree with what he says. I’d say that as I was sitting here listening, I think it’s all correct. I’d add to it, my dad was highly motivated to work not only because he was in poor health, but had 7 kids to educate. And, you know, he helped each one of us get through college.
And that’s what his legacy for us was as kids, our education. He got us all educated. His legacy in terms of work ethic, Denis summarized it. As a firm, we’ve gotten a lot of help along the way, not only from clients, but from our attorneys and staff. There’s my brother in law, Dan Harrington, has been with us for, I don’t know how many years, but a lot of years.Dan’s a great lawyer who regularly gives us sage advice. We’ve got a great group of attorneys and staff people at the office that we have the privilege of working with daily. And honestly, you asked that question about what happened after dad died? It was that people gave us a chance. They probably shouldn’t have. We were young lawyers, but they gave us a chance. And for that, we feel a debt to those that did.
DENIS: One of my best dad stories is-I had finally decided to go to Columbia. A couple days later my dad was outside reading. Later he came inside and he asked, “Did you tell West Point you’re not coming?”
And I said, uh, “No.” And he said, “I want you to call. When you call and tell them you’re not coming, talk to this guy.” I was kind of a punk. You know, 18-year old, so I’m like, “Whatever, dad, that’s fine with me.” So I called and I’ll never forget. It’s Colonel Ordway. And I said, “Colonel Ordway, my name is Denis Fitzgibbons. I just wanted to let you know I’m not coming to West Point. I decided on not coming.”
He said, “Okay, I appreciate you calling.” And I finally just said because I thought this was really strange. (laughs) And I finally said, “Colonel Ordway, could I ask you a question?” He goes, “Yeah.” And I said, “My dad wanted me to call you.” And there was just dead silence on the phone. And he said, “Son is your dad Dave Fitzgibbons?” I said, “Yeah.”And he said “Oh my God.” He goes, “I never ever thought you were Dave’s son.” He said, “Has he told you who I am?” And I said, “No.” He said, “We were tent mates in Korea.” He said, “The last time I saw your dad, he was getting on a helicopter to go home with his brothers back in Iowa.”
So he said, “When I saw your name come up on the board, I noticed the last name because it came out of Arizona. I didn’t think anything of it.” And it was the funniest thing … He apologized. He goes, “Tell your dad I apologize.” You see the only football game my dad ever saw me play in was when we were freshmen and we played West Point. Ordway had coached the JV for West Point. Dad came from Arizona for that game and they saw each other that day. It was the only (laughs) game that dad came back for and it was to see Colonel Ordway.
GC LIVING: Give us a sense of how big the law practice was when you Dad passed away
DAVID: Attorney-wise, at that time, it was Denis, myself, Dad, Kevin White had not come down, he was thinking about it… and Bob Yates.
DENIS: Right. And Judge McBryde.
DAVID: But, but the thing that I guess I’ll always remember most about the practice when my dad died; our largest client was probably The Mahoney Group. John McEvoy was president/CEO of The Mahoney Group and dad dies. So, here’s Denis and I, we’re pretty young attorneys, relatively speaking, and we were concerned what’s going to happen to our firm work. So, my dad dies, we bury my dad, Denis and I return to the office and uh, we get a call from John McEvoy and we think “Okay, there’s …
DENIS: “There it goes!”
DAVID: Here start the floodgates! We’re way too young for that guy. And, uh, John McEvoy came over, had a cup of coffee with Denis and me and explained to us where we were at. First thing he told us is that The Mahoney Group would not be leaving our practice, that he wanted to give us an opportunity, anything we previously worked on for him, we had done a good job and that would continue until we made a mistake. Denis continues to represent The Mahoney Group today.
GC LIVING: Fantastic. What a great story!
DAVID: And then John proceeded to tell us, “I’m one of your clients. Everybody wants to know, it’s personal to them. Your dad’s dead. He was the guy that ran the show. Your clients want to know “What’s happening with my file?”, so you need to get a letter out quickly answering that question.” And so, Denis, I and everybody at the office worked on weekends, nights, going through every single file we had, wrote to every client we had and said, “Here’s where you are at, and Denis, I or Bob Yates will be responsible for your file.
DENIS: Right, I mean we should point out that my dad never retired.
DENIS: He actually did time sheets the night before he went into the hospital…
GC LIVING: No way!
DENIS: Oh yeah, he was hardcore. So towards the end, he was at home and his office was actually at home. A lot of people didn’t know when they called, they’d be put through to him but he would actually be picking it up at his house. A lot of people met him out of his house, where he practiced a little bit toward the end but just like John McEvoy, John Hemmings, who ran Bank of Casa Grande at the time was the same way, Tony Serrano, you know, a lot of people that we thought very highly of, who talked very highly of my dad, wanted to make sure that they were behind us and, I think all of them made it a point too, that you get an opportunity to prove you can do the work. We’re not going to be here if you can’t do the work but you’ll get the opportunity, to keep the work if you can do it. And uh, so I mean, there were a lot of just really good families in town. Cecil Kinser, Al &Riley’s – another guy who was right there and very close friend of my dad and he very much wanted to make sure that we knew that we would continue to do his work and we still to this day, David represents Al &Riley’s, to this day and we always have so we’ve been fortunate to do that. And so we’ve had a lot of people like that who respected my father a great deal and so they were happy to at least give us a shot.
GC LIVING: It’s safe to say that the sons furthered the family legacy?
DAVID: Well … (laughs) I think Denis and I both say that; my dad would say that we haven’t screwed it up . . . yet.
DAVID: Probably, but yeah. We tried to – our dad was a great guy so we tried to carry on his good name. Because in the end, that’s all they leave you, is your family name, right?
GC LIVING: Do you find that you guys are more involved civically than he was – around town, on boards and efforts here and there?
DAVID: First I’d say there’s two of us so the answer is probably yes, but second I’d say that, when my dad was younger and in better health, my dad was on P and Z, my dad was in Rotary, my dad did all those things, but as he got older, his health declined, they were fewer and fewer.
DENIS: My mom was also active, I mean, she’s a registered nurse and, once the kids were out of the house, or towards the end when my little brother’s grown up, she went back and did some nursing but, she was one of the main people that started St. Vincent de Paul in town and so, I think, she was very active, she also was part of a new group the Presbyterian church started…
DAVID: Seeds of Hope?
DENIS: Seeds of Hope, that she was involved in, so she was very active too and, and, in a different way that my dad was.
GC LIVING: So describe to us, the uh, magnitude of the law practice now. Tell us what you do? What you’re good at.
DAVID: I’d saythat it’s certainly changed since my dad was practicing law. I mean, we’ve now got a lot more lawyers than when my dad was there. It’s computerized. Our practice areas are different too. And our clients are different than when, my dad was there and, andin part that’s because of the nature of the practice. People have moved on, or passed away, and new companies have come to town. So, I think that we’ve certainly expanded the practice areas.We have one lawyer who only does divorce, one lawyer does personal injury and one lawyer does bankruptcy, Denis represents the City of Coolidge and the City of Maricopa. We have lawyers in the office who assist in that. And, I do business and real estate. Denis does that too and another lawyer does estate planning.
So, I think we do more than we used to do. I would also tell you that my dad would take on cases just because he thought it was right or thought somebody was being you know, mistreated. My dad would take those cases on and then we’d put work in and they were horrible money losers but, my dad felt it was unfair to get treatment like that, and so uh, we don’t do those uh,…
DAVID: …anymore because …
DENIS: We don’t try to do them. (laughs)
DAVID: Yeah. (laughs) That’s right. We don’t try to do them. But, you know, sometimes you end up that way. But my dad would take a lot of those cases, but we can’t take those cases anymore and so I think it’s changed in that way too.
DENIS: He was funny because I think it must have been right about the time I came down to practice with him, and it was real treat because he was very old school and so, the first time, when I came down, I hadn’t seen a lot of clients before, just because that wasn’t the nature of the practice I came from and so I think within a week or so, I had a client, coming into the old office.He had me all the way in the back and so I’d had to walk up and there was a door he looked around to see if anybody was in the waiting room so I must have come up twice at most and finally, I must have come up a third time or something and he screams out from his desk because he could see everything from where he was sitting and he’s like, “Why don’t you get a hat?” And I’m looking around, like, “What?” He’s like, “If you’re going to be my doorman, why don’t you get a hat and a uniform?”
DAVID: Denis, before he came down here was Snell & Wilmer which is, I don’t know how many, but, several hundred lawyers now but it’s a large firm so…
DENIS: Yeah, it had a much different practice than he did. But it worked great, because we had clients that could use some of their services because Snell & Wilmer had specialists in certain areas so they’ve always been very good to us and helpful when we need them.
GC LIVING: So obviously you don’t regret coming back from Snell & Wilmer?
DENIS: No, no, not at all. One of the managing partners now, a man by the name of John Bouma who was from Pocahontas, Iowa, I remember when I went up to tell him I was thinking of coming down. He said, “Listen, I think you’re going to enjoy that a lot and if you don’t, come on back but I think you’d really enjoy practicing with your dad and brother. Sounds like a great opportunity”, so, I have not regretted coming back.
GC LIVING: So is the firm growing? Or seeking to grow? Do you like it just the way it is? I know you have a really nice new office, I don’t know if there are any extra offices sitting around waiting for new lawyers but, what’s your target for growth?
DAVID: I think we’d say, yeah, we always look at the opportunity to grow. We certainly have more offices there for lawyers. But it depends on where this economy is going.There are various times Denis and I have talked and said, “Oh, the economy, we finally turned a corner”, and then three months later we said, “Oh that was an illusion”.
GC LIVING: We’ve said that once a year for the last eight years.
DAVID: Yeah, that’s it.
DENIS: I mean I think, not only are those pressures there with the economy but the practice has changed dramatically, I mean you now have Summit School of Law putting out a great number of new lawyers – and I think it puts a ton of pressure on the practice. And you also now have document preparers or registered document preparers and so they have created a lot of different challenges in the practice, and so there’s a lot more competition that’s out there. A lot of it’s probably good for the practice but a lot of it can be difficult, because when you get an attorney that only know a very narrow area and they’re trying to put something globally together, it is a challenge.
DAVID: And just thinking about what Denis said, I do think that there’s a place for everybody but what we do is more sophisticated and costs more money. So, the document preparers have a place; anybody can set up an LLC but, if the LLC is going to have an Operating Agreement, if there’s going to be more than one person, you start to have issues of succession and who buys who out if you get in a fight, who has voting control, all those things, you need somebody more than I think just a document preparer.
And the other thing I’d just add is that, civil litigation used to make up a significant part of our practice and that’s just changed. People think long and hard before they get into a lawsuit where you’re going to be paying somebody per hour, the rates that we charge, the dispute needs to be significant and they have to feel pretty strongly that they’re right, otherwise, people pause before embarking on suits . . . and they should. And, today, there’s arbitrators and all those options that weren’t there when dad was practicing that’s different.
GC LIVING: Well let’s talk about the city then. What do you think about the changes in the city from twenty years ago, since the anniversary of your dad’s passing to today, how has it changed in your view, both as citizens but also as practicing lawyers and business people?
DAVID: My view is that physically it has grown since twenty years ago when dad passed away. I would say there is less of a cohesive sense of community. People don’t seem to me to get involved. Denis and I both graduated from high school here, so it was kind of expected – this is our community. In days gone by, people held the view, this is your community and you have an obligation to get involved and move it forward. I just don’t think people care as much today about that as they used to. That is my sense and I know people lead busy lives and they get involved in their micro-life but don’t look at the macro, what can we do for the community. I think that is why both of us get involved on boards and civic affairs; it was that,to be a good citizen.
GC LIVING: That problem isn’t just local, it is societal in general, across the state, county, and globe probably or do you think it is more local?
DAVID: No I think it is a societal problem. That is my sense.
DENIS: I think it is too, I think part of it is driven economically with the downturn in the economy. I think a lot of people kind of looked inward and thought; hey I gotta take care of my own house and my family first and then maybe just are starting to kind of look out. But, I do know that Coolidge just got done with an election where they had several people running, Maricopa has always had very active elections. I think both those two communities have strong programs where they have citizen academies or they train citizens on what the city government is about, the opportunities to serve, and things like that. So I think that is a good way and I think each city is more unique. I think Maricopa is unique because it has a strong retirement community with a lot of active people who want to be active in the city.
Also it is such a young city that even though you hear the “good old boys club”, I don’t think people believe it as much because this city has only been around for twelve years now, but they seem to have pretty active…their council meetings are broadcast live on TV, but still at least seventy five, eighty percent of the room is full for all of their council meetings. So I think it’s just always been that way out there.
DAVID: Yeah, I think people were more involved 30 years ago, because there was more of a sense of community in Casa Grande. I think it gets back to some of those things we talked to you before about. You know, there were people living here, John Hemmings, John McEvoy, and all those people who could get things done, and that has kind of gone away.
GC LIVING: Okay in any conversation like this about the town, where it is, and where it is going I could say that economic development has to come up and it has been a pretty lean five or six years.You guys are both involved on various levels with the government; where do you think that effort should head? Will it come back with the economy in general?
DENIS: You know, for me, I think the days of putting pretty pictures and the sun on the internet and hoping for the best are gone. I really think what we need to do from a community standpoint is address workforce. I think that from our position, from my position on Access Arizona, sometimes we have heard that where we’re getting criticized by our competitor is our workforce. I think that we need to seriously consider, how do we address this workforce problem? How do we use the resources in the community from the school system to CAC [Central Arizona College], and ask how do we address this? How do we also, and I am not one to really understand CAVIT [Central Arizona Valley Institute of Technology] as well as I probably should. But, I know they train in the health care profession. I know they train fire and police, but is there something more they can do? I mean we hear about some of these manufacturing plants and the different machinery they have, you know, are we preparing people to work in those areas and what do we need to do to better our workforce?
I think, although we hear sometimes that that’s the big negative, we also have success stories, like Louie Sanchez out at Wal-Mart. Their plant consistently ranks I think in the top five of the Wal-Mart distribution centers around the country. So, he clearly is getting the workforce he wants, needs, to be successful. So how do we address those concerns, because to me we can’t just ask companies to come here because we have available land and we are near I-10 and I-8. We must address, and put the last piece of the puzzle together, which is a workforce, a high quality workforce that can do what they need to be done.
DAVID: And as we figure out our workforce, we also must ask: what is going to be a real, livable wage for them? And are builders able to build homes that they can qualify for? So if our workforce is going to be comprised generally of people at twenty dollars an hour jobs, then how do we work with city government, how do we work with developers to construct a home that a young family could afford? Maybe it is going to be smaller, maybe there will be no yards. I hear millennials want to travel; they don’t want to have a yard to care for. Well okay how can we work together to make that work for the community too, so that our workers live here, can enjoy life and they have a chance at success, just like all of us want?
GC LIVING: So, what institution is poised to take those two issues into the future, and to take those questions, and come up with answers? You think it is Access Arizona?
DENIS: Access Arizona had a strategic planning session a month or two ago and one of the things that they talked about is, their funding has gotten lower with different communities not belonging. Really, when you go back and look at the beginning of Access Arizona and look at when that was started by McEvoy, Kramer, all those guys who started that, it was primarily run by private money. I think with the downturn in the economy that funding sources completely flipped around and now it is primarily funded by public money and I think that Access Arizona is going to have to address that issue and try to bring back the private investors. But I do think Access Arizona should take the lead at trying to figure out how to really bring parties together to address those workforce issues. We are in a unique position to look at that and try to figure out what is the best way to go forward. We have members from CAC, we have members from the elementary school district. So I think we could start looking at that.
GC LIVING: Anytime that we get the workforce issues up and affordable housing, education is right in there. I know you guys have been heavily involved, and we do what we can, in fact this issue of the magazine that is coming up is the education special. This interview is not necessarily about that but I know you guys are involved in education. Give us a sense of what you see the current battle field. I mean on the one hand it is assumed that we have bad education, primary education is substandard but that simply isn’t true. We have good education systems here but it’s either we are not getting the message through to the public or it is not efficacious after that step. I don’t know, what is your take?
DENIS: I think there’s a lot of pressure on public education, and I think that because of the funding source, the funding mechanism, property taxes, and charter schools, I think they’re clearly under assault, and I appreciate that. I think the quality of education, is a big issue and, and we need to do what we can to address that issue, and, and I think that part of that’s going to be too, is really kinda in some ways try to, uh, rally around and support our teachers.
We’re products not only of this community, but, were both products of some unbelievable teachers and coaches. When we went through school here, the administrators, teachers and coaches created a great environment. We got a great education . . . a good start . . . we met great friends.
DAVID: I agree. . . Denis and I are both products of Casa Grande schools, so we’re thankful for all the opportunities that were created by the foundation we got there, and I think we both agree we got it from great teachers, coaches, but we’re not going to name them, because then we’ll get in trouble.
GC LIVING: (laughs).
DAVID: Today, there are success stories both in high school and at the elementary school level, that just don’t get told; they’re not communicated well. I know one day I was talking to Frank Davidson [Superintendent Casa Grande Elementary School District], and I was floored by all the success they had. And then, when you talk about graduates from high school, and you hear these scholarships that these local young people get, those facts don’t get communicated.
GC LIVING: So find a way to tell our audience that things are going to get better. In your own words. (laughs).
DAVID: We’ve had some success in a down time, but we think the future of Casa Grande is bright. Not just because, as Denis said, the two freeways come together here, but I also think there’s lots of opportunity here for us and for those who follow us. There’s affordable land; there’s a good core of leadership;there needs to be improving a workforce that can afford homes and wants to live here. We believe in Casa Grande, Pinal County. Denis and I wrote a note to our clients last year that said that with no disrespect to our father, the best years of our firm and this community lie ahead of us.
DENIS: I agree wholeheartedly. I think the good thing about Casa Grande is there has always been a willingness to work together, to address issues and work together.It goes back to when the two mines closed, those community leaders came together to build an organization to attract the Ross-Abbotts, the Frito Lays, and I think thatwe know too that we have to address those issues, and I think we have good community leadership to do that.
I think that, as we get above 50,000 population there is going to be a lot more opportunity. When you look at sending your child to school, from public schools to charter schools, there’s a lot of different opportunity and a lot of variety. I do think that as a community one thing we’ve shown that were good at is trying to come together when we have to, to address these issues. For example,two years ago on the bond vote for the high school. That was critical for the high school. They needed it, and people understood that, and people were willing to do that, and I think that shows the type of people that live in this community and I think we just need to have the courage to identify issues and address those issues.
GC LIVING: Well we agree with you about the future here and that’s why we go through the trouble of publishing this magazine, and visiting with leaders like you.
DAVID: Thanks for the opportunity.
DENIS: Thanks, yes, thank you very much.