Getting to Know Bert Spence
Getting to Know Bert Spence
Bert Spence has known much success in traditional litigation work. At the same time, he helps clients in the banking and financial sector to navigate transactional issues. A partner in the Birmingham office of RumbergerKirk, Bert talks about taking care of clients, the practice of law, and his work with Lawyers for Civil Justice.
Bert, what led you to enter the legal profession and talk a little bit about your career progression?
As young kid, I found everything about law enticing. However, while I was in college, I found myself drawn in by English studies and even considered an academic career, earning a PhD in English and teaching.
In graduate school, however, I decided academia was not for me and returned to my original plan to study law. But I also needed to go to work, and the only real experience I had was in writing and journalism. But taking a job at a small newspaper brought me back to the law. Part of my beat was covering court cases. As I watched lawyers work and talked to them about how they did their jobs, I saw that practicing law was not beyond my grasp, so I made the decision to take the LSAT.
During law school, I took the traditional route and clerked for a large firm during the first summer. I was made an early offer to return as a clerk and guaranteed a job upon graduation. It was a different world then, when associates were in high demand.
Tell us about your work at Rumberger.
My practice sort of bridges two areas of law and I really enjoy both. Traditional litigation, both corporate and product liability cases, are exciting and really challenge me to be on top of my game. Litigation is like going to war – the better-prepared team generally wins. It has aspects similar to a chess game – matching wits and trying to see several moves ahead.
At the same time, however I represent commercial lenders in the problem loan context. The work is sometimes transactional in nature, dealing with loan defaults, something I like to refer to as the ‘remedial phase’. This is a more finite world with only so many ways to work things out and I represent the lender, who generally holds the best the cards. Unlike litigation, there are rarely court-imposed deadlines or lots of arguing. Generally, both sides understand how the loan contracts work and the process is one of working out solutions according to those contracts. It’s the perfect compliment to the litigation practice.
What are your secrets to cultivating lasting client relationships?
One can never forget that attorneys are in the service industry – we are service providers and our job is to make life better or easier for the client. The outcome may not always be one you’d prefer to fight for; instead it has to be the one that best benefits the client. Not one size fits all – you have to get to know each client and their business objectives; assess what they really need and want; really pay attention and listen to how they want things done. Most have sophisticated in-house lawyers and their eyes are on the big picture while you only have one little part. You must be understanding when their objective is not limited to winning a single case, but is focused on a larger strategy. In short, it’s not about you, the lawyer. It’s always about the client.
How does your previous experience as chief litigation counsel for one of the largest U.S. banks impact your practice today?
The years I spent in-house really restored my faith in the legal profession. After almost 15 years of private litigation practice, I was getting a little jaded from defending against what sometimes seemed like outrageous claims from lawyers who should know better. Being constantly in “battle” mode had me feeling that perhaps the profession had deteriorated in terms of collegiality and professionalism. Then I found myself hiring lawyers all over the country to defend what was then the 8th-largest bank in the U.S. It was very uplifting to go into an unfamiliar jurisdiction, hire a lawyer I had never worked with before, and find almost every time that I was dealing with a top-notch, conscientious professional. Lawyers are, by and large, people who work very hard and who care very much about doing a great job, every time.
I hope that I learned while being directly employed by “the client” more about what corporate clients need from their outside lawyers, and about the stresses and needs of the in-house lawyers who are the company’s front line of protection. Back on the outside now, I constantly try to remember how I liked to have things done when I was on the inside.
You’re active with Lawyers for Civil Justice. What is this organization about and what is your role?
LCJ is about making the litigation process more fair and less costly. Especially since the advent of e-discovery, some aspects of civil practice have gotten out of control in terms of costs. We work on bringing the rules of civil procedure, and related statutes, into the 21st century.
What advice would you give to attorneys who are still new to the practice of law?
Regardless of the type of work, find a way to work for other lawyers whose minds you admire. Law school does not teach you how to practice. It teaches you how to pass the bar exam. Experienced lawyers teach you how to practice law. Try to work with people you want to be taught by.
What you do in the community and how do you spend your free time.
I have young kids, so ‘free time’ is a distant memory. We are active in our church, and we are home schooling. We like to go hiking, canoeing, camping; pretty much anything outdoors. I like to hunt turkey and shoot quail when I can.
I am active in a number of professional groups, and I volunteer as an arbitrator for the Better Business Bureau, deciding mostly consumer disputes of various types.
But on most days, I’m doing what everyone else is doing: trying to balance home and work and keep everything running as smoothly as possible. We were put on this Earth to help each other, so you have to keep your eyes open to those opportunities as well.