Founder of premier plaintiffs’ firm talks about how to select the right business model for your practice, overcome cash flow challenges and manage a diverse caseload.
Darren Penn, a trial lawyer with over 20 years of experience, founded the plaintiffs’ firm of Harris Penn Lowry LLP alongside Jeff Harris and Steve Lowry in 2006. The Georgia-based practice set itself apart by achieving the largest verdicts in the state over the past ten years in five separate categories: products liability, business torts, premises liability, nursing home and medical negligence. Further, the firm has secured over $750 million in verdicts and settlements on behalf of its clients—establishing it as one of the leading plaintiffs’ civil litigation practices in the Southeast.
What motivated you to form Harris Penn Lowry?
My law partner, Jeff Harris, and I worked together at another firm, Scherffius, Ballard, Still & Ayres, handling mainly product liability cases. There just came a point that we looked at each other and said “you know what, we need to open our own firm and do our own thing.” It literally happened just like that. Within about a four-month span we opened up a new firm with Steve Lowry. The lawyers at our prior firm were outstanding and really great people, so it was tough to leave, but we just felt like it was time.
Why did you decide to team up with Jeff Harris and Steve Lowry?
I worked with Jeff all the time, day in and day out on product liability cases. Plus, we are six months apart in age and are best friends, so it was easy.
As for Steve, Jeff had a wrongful death case with him at the time. Jeff represented one family member and Steve represented another family member. They were able to work together and got to know each other during that case, and hit it off really well. I had also met Steve over the years doing some product liability work, so when Jeff suggested Steve as a partner, I said he is a great guy, let’s do it.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as an owner of a plaintiffs’ practice?
One of the biggest challenges just about every firm with a significant caseload faces is cash flow, especially if you handle complex and varied cases as we do. The bottom line is these cases are very expensive to prosecute properly. So cash flow is something that will keep you awake at night because you may find yourself wondering how am I going to fully represent this client if I have cash flow issues, how do I hire experts, how do I pay for depositions, how do I fully research the issues in the case, how do I get the witnesses to trial, etc.
Is that why you decided to get financing from Counsel Financial?
Yes, absolutely. We started out with a traditional bank line of credit and it was limited in availability. As the practice grew, our caseload grew and the need to pay for expenses increased, we needed a bigger line of credit to have that cash flow to keep us going in a way that would allow us to provide the best representation as we possibly could.
Who primarily runs the business aspect of your firm?
We have co-managing partners because we have a Savannah and Atlanta office. I was managing partner for a number of years, but we recently decided—in what I think is a very smart move, and great for me—that we are going to move that role around. I think it is a good move because all partners get to see, experience and feel what it is to be managing partner. So, right now our managing partners are Jed Manton and Jeff. Although, we only have four main partners, so we are all essentially making management decisions day-to-day.
What would you say has been the largest contributor to your firm’s success?
I think one of the biggest contributing factors for us is that we are not a firm with one go-to trial lawyer like some others. In our firm, everyone can try cases and all of the lawyers do, in fact, try cases. I don’t think there are enough lawyers out there that believe in the art and craft of being a trial lawyer and telling a client’s story. For us, that is our favorite part of the job. I like to tell the story and be in the courtroom and in the trial talking to the jury and so our firm’s goal is to be the best trial lawyers that we can possibly be. I think that has really contributed to our success because our firm isn’t a one-trick pony. We are a trial firm that is made up of trial lawyers and they are all good at what they do.
Is there a reason why your firm handles so many different types of cases?
Essentially, at the beginning, the capital raise-up was primarily for the use of acquiring mass tort cases through a whole array of marketing placements.
But then, as the business grew, some of the capital had to be used for the operational side. The cash flow had not caught up with the growth of the business, so there was a period of time where the raise-up was used for funding operations, which quite honestly, was disconcerting to me. I did not like to use expensive capital for operations, but at the same time, when I did the math on what I was aggregating and what it was costing me to process it, the availability of capital was very helpful to the law firm and most importantly very helpful to those clients who got the compensation they were entitled to.
Where do you see your firm in five years?
I kind of see us getting back to our basics of just trying cases. Some of the diverse cases we have handled have been really successful, but others have not, and the less successful ones did not involve getting in the courtroom and being a trial lawyer. So I see us getting back to the very serious catastrophic injury and complex cases. That is how we started this firm and it was ultra successful. I think it is a great formula and you don’t mess with something that is not really broken. We do not need to explore all different areas outside of trials because we have historically been good at the complex, catastrophic injury cases.
What outside interests do you have?
All kinds. I am a huge Georgia Bulldogs fan and fan of college football in general. I play golf when I can. Although, they say the law is the jealous mistress and it will eat your golf game up. It seems that the busier we get and the more we grow the less I play.
My primary interest though is my kids. I follow them around the country watching soccer tournaments. My oldest daughter just started playing soccer for Columbia University’s women’s team and had played just about every sport that you can play growing up. My 14-year-old daughter is also into a lot of different sports. She was a really great gymnast for a number of years, but chose to focus on soccer. She uses her gymnastics on the diving team at school and also runs cross country. My son is ten and he plays soccer also, but football is currently his favorite. One of my joys is coaching his football team.
If you could give any advice to attorneys that seek to enter your field or begin their own plaintiffs’ practice what would it be?
Well, I actually talk to people a lot about it and try to help them any way I can. And one of the things I tell people all the time is that there are so many different ways to practice plaintiffs’ law and be very successful at it, and so the number one thing is figure out what you want to do. Basically, it is like that Avett Brothers song, the line that says, “decide what to be and go be it.” The same thing is true for being a plaintiffs’ lawyer. Decide what kind of plaintiffs’ lawyer you want to be and that is the path that you should follow. Do not try to be all things to all people. Some people are good at volume, some people are better at a certain type of case and some people may want to focus on trial work like we do. If you can see it, envision it going well, then that is the path that you want.
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