|Mark Wada’s Portland-based law firm, Farleigh Wada Witt, has hired three new lawyers because of the boom in business from the banking industry.
STORY BY JENNIFER MARGULIS // PHOTOS BY ANTHONY PIDGEON
Mark Wada has been working long hours. Wada is a partner in Farleigh Wada Witt, a Portland-based law firm with three named partners, 24 attorneys, and 57 total employees. Over the past six months he and his partners have been so busy they’ve hired three new lawyers: one specializing in financial law and two litigators.
Wada represents the banking industry, advising bankers on corporate lending and other commercial projects. He’s also the point person when things go wrong and banks find themselves with debtors unable to pay back loans.
When the sun starts to set and Wada is still at the office — which has been happening a lot lately — he turns on piano music by Jim Brickman to keep himself going.
“I like all kinds of music except rap and grunge,” says the 57-year-old Wada.
This season Wada’s been listening to a lot of music. While other Oregon firms have frozen hiring new lawyers and are seeing their client base dwindle, firms such as Farleigh Wada Witt that specialize in bankruptcy and finance report robust practices and more work than they can stay on top of. “Some of the bigger firms have basically frozen hiring,” says Ward Greene, 63, who has been practicing law in Oregon for 37 years and is a past president of the Multnomah Bar Association.
“It’s a very difficult job market for new lawyers in Oregon certainly, and across the United States. But lawyers who handle business transactions, bankruptcy, and litigation — like we do at our firm — are staying very, very busy.”
Individual bankruptcy lawyers are also in high demand. According to Kateri Walsh, spokesperson for the Oregon State Bar, between July 2009 and March 2010, more than 1,200 people called the Oregon State Bar referral service looking for attorneys who specialize in bankruptcy law, a 50% increase in call volume over the same period two years ago. With double-digit unemployment rates holding steady for the past six months, Oregon has seen almost no job growth, and economists and business people use words like “flat” and “stuck” to describe the current state of Oregon’s economy.
Wada, a soft-spoken man with a law degree from Cornell University (class of 1978), acknowledges that the boom in his firm’s business is a double-edged sword. The current economic downswing in Oregon, where 70% to 75% of Wada’s clients are based or have operations, has resulted in myriad difficulties for the banks, which are trying to stay solvent. “I haven’t seen it this bad since the ’80s,” says Wada. “It’s sad to see what’s happening out there, not just to the commercial developers and the people with sub-prime mortgages but to everybody else in between. It’s very hard for a lot of companies, and it’s difficult on individuals trying to make their house payments.”
Wada traces the current financial difficulties that Oregon and the rest of the nation are experiencing back to the liquidity crunch as well as to the ongoing drop in real estate values and personal property collateral. The failure of the Seattle-based bank Washington Mutual in September 2008 was a huge blow to the banking industry in the Pacific Northwest as well, making some of Wada’s bank clients even more nervous.
“After that, people couldn’t get credit, they couldn’t refinance their way out of problems, and the banks have been getting more problem loans and becoming more conservative in how they deal with problem loans,” Wada says. “Revenues at companies are down. All of these things coming together at the same time has made it very difficult here in Oregon.”