BY LINDA BAKER | OB EDITOR
Dennis Rawlinson, world-class litigator, chair of Miller Nash, one of Portland’s oldest law firms, and chair of the Portland Business Alliance, wants to set the record straight:
“I don’t wear suits,” he says. (He’s wearing a suit). “I didn’t know you, so I wore this suit. But I don’t wear suits unless I’m going to federal court.”
Portland, emphasizes Rawlinson, “is not a city where people wear suits.”
Founded in 1873, Miller Nash employs 110 attorneys and serves clients throughout its offices in Portland and Central Oregon. The firm turns 140 this year. In late March, I met Rawlinson (and yes, it was for the first time) in the company’s Big Pink offices. There he offered up a short retrospective that touched on everything from the recession to a few of the firm’s more controversial cases and its long history of community involvement.
Rawlinson also spoke about Portland’s business climate, and the need to match the city’s livability — and uber casual style — with more jobs and economic growth.
OB: There’s a lot of talk about the poor job market for lawyers, post-recession. Describe the impact of the economic downturn on Miller Nash.
Rawlinson: The recession had amazingly little impact. We are one of the only large law firms that continue to honor all commitments to summer clerks and associates. We didn’t say: come in six months later, or, instead of hiring five we’ll be hiring three. Last year was also one of the strongest in the firm’s history.
That’s in part because we’re a firm that does bankruptcy and creditor-type work and that tends to be busier when the economy is struggling.
Q: Single out one or two of your most significant cases.
We were recently involved in litigation around the Sea Shepherd, the Japanese whaling ship. There’s been some well-meaning efforts to keep Japan from some of whaling endeavors. Unfortunately, some of those efforts in the view of many have become violent and become dangerous and we were asked to try and get a temporary restraining order to protect folks in danger.
That’s an example of something that’s not particularly popular a topic but one we thought in view of danger to human life was worthy.
Another example takes you back a while. In 1994, I went to Oregon City and arranged for Tonya Harding to skate in the Olympics. At a time that the US Olympic Committee and US Figure Skating Committee were inclined to think she shouldn’t.
The judge found they weren’t following their rules and regulations and should be allowed to skate. Since she didn’t have much going on in her life but that, it was terribly important.
Q: How did you land the Harding case?
My wife is a figure skating coach.
OB: From Tonya Harding to the construction work the firm is handling connected to the Intel expansion in Hillsboro — the Miller Nash case roster reads a bit like a social and economic history of Oregon.
Something we’re proud of is the fact that we’ve been public minded and maybe that’s why (partner) Eliza Dozono is Chair of Oregon Lottery or (partner) Chris Helmer is chair of Oregon College of Art & Crafts. We have this rich history and force it on our young people doing public service.
When I first came here as a young wet-behind-ears lawyer, I went to Antelope to serve as a hearings officer to determine whether or not Antelope should incorporate or not. That was the days of Rajneesh and secretary of state Norma Paulus wanted to make sure people had appropriate six months residency. We went over on buses at our own expense because we thought it was important for the state.
OB: As chair of the Portland Business Alliance, you continue to work on issues that are important to the region. What is the strategic focus of the PBA jobs campaign?
We have launched a campaign that issues reports every six months. Those reports began to wake everybody up to show statistically how we compare with Seattle, Austin and other cities that are doing better economically. People think Portland is such a nice place to live but they didn’t realize that we really weren’t doing very well.
The second effort was to try and figure out well if we were going to create jobs what kind of jobs give us most bang for our buck. Is it lawyers? Well it isn’t, as you might suspect. One of the areas that we found that really seemed to be powerful because of the ripple down effect is traded sector. Folks in that sector earn 40% higher wages, and every job we create there creates 2 1/2 jobs by ripple effect.
So if we can attract more employers or take Intels and Nikes and encourage them to expand then we can have some real impact.
OB: Is the current city administration a supportive PBA partner?
I personally like Charlie, I think he’s a really likeable guy. I think he understands relationships are important.
The city council is challenging at times. It’s a council that reflects Portland and Portland is a lovely populist place that has a lot of activity and we love it that way and don’t want to change it. We loved having Bud Clark and love having diversity on the council.
I don’ think we would probably like it if we had heavy business influence on everything. This isn’t Chicago. But a few more jobs would be good for all of us.
Q: How does Miller Nash fit into the city's business culture and how is the firm's corporate culture evolving?
We’re very unlike a business in many ways. I’m not like anybody’s boss; I don’t really tell people what to do.
Years ago, when I was a law clerk here, I worked my tail off, seven days a week, 12 hours just hoping they would hire me. We don’t do that any more. When we have our summer clerkship, what we are trying to do is build relationships with people that have already shown by what they have done that these are people we would like to have here.
So we give those folks an opportunity to get to know each other. We just want them to form relationships with each other and us.I think when you have that and then end up practicing together you have this rich bond.
Back when I came here, things were more authoritiative. That's the way the world was and that’s changing.
Q: Hence the conflict over business attire?
A number of our clients don’t want to come downtown and they don’t like people with ties on. We do a lot of construction work, and when I’m on a construction case even in deposition, I would never wear a tie. The witnesses would be uncomfortable, the clients would be uncomfortable. This just isn’t a city that is very friendly to ties.
OB Editor Linda Baker keeps tabs on CEO and public policy issues, with frequent forays into innovation, entrepreneurship, and bikes.