Beyond the Bio

A Recipe for Success: Dick Caldwell Talks about the Early Days

A Recipe for Success: Dick Caldwell Talks about the Early Days

When Dick Caldwell, one of RumbergerKirk’s founding partners, began his storied law career in 1971, the landscape of trial law was vastly different than it is today. For more than 40 years, he has defended many of the nation’s largest manufacturers in complex products liability cases. In addition to product liability, he has grown his practice to include commercial litigation, insurance and professional liability. In this first of a three-part series, Dick talks about building the firm and his practice.

After graduating from the University of Florida School of Law, Dick began his law career at a prestigious firm in Orlando. “I liked the firm because I knew Bud Kirk from law school where he was an assistant professor and we had gotten to know each other,” remembered Dick. “Bud had joined the firm along with another mutual acquaintance.”

Like most beginning lawyers, Dick began working on smaller cases at first and then bigger cases with a partner that would include legal research, some arguments and depositions. “The firm focused primarily on insurance defense work and subrogation in which the insurance company pays the vehicle owner involved in the crash and then sues the driver at fault to get their money back,” explained Dick. “These cases were immensely frustrating because the opposing driver typically had minimal or no insurance and often, no fixed address. But, it was dynamite experience for a young trial lawyer,” he noted.

One of the biggest differences in the landscape of trial law is that it was much easier to go to trial when Dick was starting out as an attorney than it is today. “We were probably doing a jury trial every month in those days,” remembered Dick. “The cases often involved small insurance carriers and they had a lot less reluctance to take a smaller case to trial. The stakes have gone up enormously. Back then, losing $4,000-$5,000 would be considered a disaster , where today’s cases have far more at stake. Today, even what seems like a small case can result in a serious catastrophe for the client,” explained Dick.

Seven years after starting out, Dick had the opportunity to create a new firm with Thom Rumberger and Bud Kirk. “Most of my cases were with Thom on automotive product liability and it became evident that the old firm was going to break apart,” explained Dick. “Thom and Bud had grown close over the years and it just worked out that the three of us would be able to start our own firm. We were able to attract some quality people to come along with us. We even rented out space from the old firm, so the transition was very smooth,” he remembered.

Dick admitted that branching out with Thom and Bud was hard work and very scary at the time. In his mid-30’s, he had a new house, wife, four-year-old son and eleven-year-old daughter to support, but he also admitted that he was full of confidence.

“I just knew that the type of work we would be able to do was a step ahead of what we had been doing, and there was no reason that it shouldn’t be a success,” he said. “We emphasized the team concept from the beginning. Nobody is more important than anyone else. We are a team, work as a team and win or lose as a team. Whether you are a partner, associate, legal assistant, or runner, we all go off to trial together. If we don’t all work together, we won’t be successful,” explained Dick. “Our team was doing this ad hoc at the old firm, but we knew that we wanted it to be our vision for how things would work in the new firm.”

RumbergerKirk was formed on October 2, 1978 on the basis of respect for one another where everyone is available to help when needed. Dick shared the following story at the firm’s recent celebration of its 39th birthday:

“We were trying a case in San Diego and we had this runner—a nice young man. The case involved a huge volume of material that he was hauling from the hotel to the courtroom and back again. I could tell he was feeling a bit agitated and put upon. I pulled him aside and told him, ‘we’re in this together. We may be the greatest trial attorneys in the world, but without that file you deliver, we can’t do anything in the courtroom. If the paralegal can’t come up with the document we need or worse, someone fails to type it, we’re handicapped. We all are in this together to make the finished product.’ I think he felt better and more appreciated after that,” recalled Dick.

Over the past four decades, the firm has grown from just a few attorneys occupying a single suite on one floor to a mid-sized firm with 85 trial attorneys in five offices throughout Florida and in Birmingham, Alabama.

“When we started out, we were in a tiny suite of offices that we were able to take over from the old firm. It wasn’t quite big enough for all of us,” laughed Dick. “We didn’t have to negotiate a lease and we were able to move in quickly. We hired our first associate and didn’t have an office for him, so he worked in the conference room. Despite being on top of each other, we managed to stay there for about a year. At one point, Thom sent out a memo that said ‘cooperate, or I’ll have you murdered.’ That gave everyone a laugh and it really punctured the tension.”

Dick Caldwell (sitting) and Bud Kirk setting up the first RK office in Oct., 1978

Moving into bigger space gave everyone a little more elbow room, but only for a little while. “We had so much space when we first moved, but it didn’t take long to fill it out,” Dick said. “Our next move from Lake Eola to Pine Street is legend in itself. We had two floors, but we were scrambling to hire lawyers to fill the space because we were succeeding beyond our wildest dreams and cases were coming in almost faster than we could process them,” he added.

Dick noted that it was a challenge to manage a rapidly growing practice, but eventually they hired enough attorneys to handle the work and become more strategic in their growth.

Dick Caldwell (right) and Thom Rumberger (center) working on a case in the early years.

“We realized early that we could either remain a product liability boutique firm or expand into other areas—which really was the only choice for us. We first looked to commercial litigation and intentionally developed that area. Since then, we moved into professional malpractice, insurance coverage, employment and financial services, to name only a few areas of focus,” he said.

“Even as we celebrate our 39th birthday, we continue to look ahead at where we want to be in 5, 10, 15 and 20 years from now,” said Dick.

Remarkably, all of this growth for the firm has not taken away from its initial vision and culture and at its heart, the firm still remains a family. “Growing the firm, but remaining a family is tough, and believe me, it’s a matter of concern to all of us,” said Dick. “Miami was our first expansion and we wondered if we’d be able take our culture to an office in another part of the state where the community is so different. Would they be able to handle their practices and do what they need in their own community, yet remain a part of Rumberger?”

The key for making it work is goodwill on the part of all concerned to have common goals. “As long as the new branch, or existing firm, whichever it might be, has the common goal to work together, and both sides see a distinct benefit, then it works out,” noted Dick. “There certainly were bumps along the road and people and things that didn’t work, but overall, we’ve been good at identifying the right fit and the right opportunities,” he added.

When asked about his biggest accomplishments, Dick said he is quite proud of starting the Tampa office. “We always had cases in Tampa, but we weren’t able to develop any kind of volume without being there. In the early 1990’s, we had a small office in Tallahassee and one in Miami, so it seemed like a good time to look at Tampa,” he recalled. “I always liked Tampa and felt there was a lot of business there that we could handle better than anybody else. It turned out I was right! When I look back, it’s been a nice area of growth for the firm, the lawyers we’ve hired in Tampa and for me personally,” said Dick.

Identifying the right fit is imperative for the firm in hiring attorneys and staff. “Throughout the years, we’ve continued to place teamwork and respect for individuals at the center of what we do. In addition, we look to maintain the highest professional capabilities and insist on turning out the highest quality of work product possible,” explained Dick.“Our attorneys are willing to put in the effort to benefit the client and do so in a professional manner, which in turn benefits the firm. When we look to recruit an individual or open up a new office, we look for people that share this outlook.”

After all of these years, the firm must be doing something right. “Each month we receive an email with everyone’s birthdays and anniversaries,” said Dick. “Every month, I see people here 28, 24, 29, 17 years. All I can think is, ‘Wow! We must be doing something right that we are able to attract and hold on to so many good, productive people who have made their career with us!’”

“While it had been tough at times and not always easy, it’s certainly been very gratifying to be a part of the long term success of this firm,” said Dick. “We knew early on that we would have a different approach and had every hope it would turn out. We believed it would be successful, but had no idea how successful. Looking back, I’m convinced it was the right decision.”