SALT LAKE CITY — A new law firm opening its doors in August is causing a lot of buzz in Utah's legal community, not just for its unique focus, but also for the firm's high-profile partners.
The partners of Zimmerman Jones Booher LLC are being compared to an NBA dream team in terms of legal experience and expertise. Michael Zimmerman is the former chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, Linda Jones is a 16-year veteran handling appeals cases for the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, and Troy Booher is a private practice appellate attorney with eight years experience in appeals, as well as a clinical associate professor of law and the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law.
What has Utah's legal community talking is that the trio are opening Utah's first law firm solely dedicated to appeals cases.
Others in the legal community are waiting to see if Utah's market in appeals cases can support such a business.
Zimmerman said Utah's starting to become a more sophisticated place from a legal perspective. The Utah Supreme Court and the Utah Court of Appeals have built up a considerable amount of case law over the past decade, to where experts in appeals are needed. "We're hoping that we are catching the edge of market development," Zimmerman said.
Due to bar limits on investors, the three partners have sunk their own money into setting up their office, which is set to open Aug. 1.
"They are all excellent lawyers and well regarded," Utah State Bar President Rodney Snow said. "They obviously have significant expertise in the appellate process."
While he thinks the concept is "cutting edge," Snow said he is not certain about whether there is a strong demand to support the firm. He remains curious about its success.
Gauging market demand is difficult. Neither the American Bar Association nor the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers keep track of dedicated appellate law firms. Snow and Zimmerman both say such firms are typically found in larger U.S. cities, such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and Dallas.
There are certainly law firms in Utah that have attorneys who specialize in appellate issues, but Zimmerman said his firm will have a key advantage. "Because we don't represent clients in other matters it means we aren't likely to have conflicts of interest," he said.
Jones said the firm will also seek public defender contracts with surrounding counties, stepping in to handle criminal appeals cases. Offices such as the Utah Attorney General, U.S. Attorney for Utah, Federal Defender's and Salt Lake Legal Defender Association have had appellate sections for years. "We're bringing this to the private sector. I think having a specialty in appeals is really going to be a resource for the (legal) community," she said, adding the firm can also serve as consultants to other firms.
"It's major news in the legal community," said University of Utah law professor Dan Medwed, who himself worked a number of years as an appellate lawyer. Typically appeals specialists are housed in larger law firms, meaning their hourly rates tend to be very high. "What's great about an appeal boutique is that you have these top lawyers, but they have the flexibility in their rates."
Utah attorneys who work in appeals say the market rate for such cases range between $200 to $350 an hour, with some reaching $500. Booher said because the firm's rates will vary depending on the work needs of each case he didn't want to give specific rates, but added he anticipates his firm's rates will easily compete with larger firms based on their direct control of costs.
The firm will work on both civil and criminal appeals cases. Booher, who also started and runs the U.'s appellate practice clinic for law students, said the firm also plans to take on occasional pro bono cases in which law students will gain appeals experience. Booher said the cases will not be simply busy work for his firm, but will be cases that the partners truly believe will further the causes of justice and progress in the law.
"These are some of the best people out there," Medwed said. He believes the new firm will also become a valuable resource for Utah's appellate judges, even though none are allowed to say so publicly.
Appellate judges, more than trial judges, rely on the attorneys that appear before them to be well versed in the law and to guide justices with informed arguments that will lead to sound judgments and good law free of unforeseen complications, Medwed explained.
If the new law firm can make a good go of it, Medwed said it could open the way for competing dedicated appellate firms.
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