Growing up in Drexel, Mo., a town of about 1,000 people, Trent Webb imagined himself becoming the town doctor, a position that would never bring a huge salary but plenty of significance and respect. In preparation for medical school, he studied chemistry and biology at Drury College and worked as an EMT during summer breaks. But one ambulance house call during the summer after his sophomore year took him to the home of an older man he knew who had died during the night of a heart attack, and it rattled him.
"I decided then that being a doctor was probably not the best calling for me," says Webb, who opted instead for the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Among the beneficiaries of Webb's changed career course are Shook Hardy & Bacon, where he chairs the intellectual property practice from the firm's Kansas City office, and a growing roster of companies that have relied upon his expertise in complex patent, trademark and copyright litigation. He has won trial victories for Sprint and Nike in patent matters and also has represented the likes of Dupont, Microsoft, the Coca-Cola Company, Garmin and Hallmark.
Lawdragon: How did you start to think about law school after deciding against medical school?
Trent Webb: A literature professor said to me, "You know, you're a pretty good writer, you should think about law school." I was also big into school government all four years, and I thought, "Why not?" It was not a life-long dream to be a lawyer. But I always played sports and was really into competition, and litigation seemed like the perfective competitive outlet. I still finished my double major in chemistry and biology, with a minor in literature.
LD: How long have you been at Shook Hardy?
TW: I'm a lifer. I've been at Shook Hardy my entire career, right out of law school. I came here for its reputation for trial work and litigation. It was a perfect fit for me and I never left.
LD: What advice do you give to younger lawyers?
TW: We teach everyone here to maintain your credibility with your client, the judge and the jury. Your credibility is very important. And there is no substitute for hard work and a willingness to roll up your sleeves and dive into something. That's really our approach. Each case is different, and each client is different. One of our core beliefs here is to treat clients as valued members of the team, and ourselves as partners in the long-term health of their businesses.
We've had amazing client loyalty. Being in Kansas City, it takes courage to hire us. We're not in Washington, New York or Silicon Valley. We feel we have more to prove than firms where IP lawyers traditionally work.
LD: How did the recession affect the firm's practice?
TW: Without exception everyone was hit by the recession, and so we also felt it. Our clients are much more aware of their legal spending, and as a consequence we are much more aware about what we do and how much it's costing. Some clients have come out of the recession doing very well, others are still struggling, and as business partners you have to work with them. And if you need to make special concessions for a client, you do it.
LD: Have you been able to pick up more business in this environment?
TW: Over the last three to four years, we've seen an uptick in the interest that we're getting. General counsel and legal staff have had to find opportunities to get more for less. One of the easiest ways to do that is to change the zip code of your lawyers. Dollar for dollar, compared to a New York firm, we're going to be a lot less expensive. There have been a lot more opportunities for us.
One of the struggles has been managing our growth without losing our culture. If we wanted to take advantage of every opportunity we have, we could hire very quickly in a way that would result in short-term revenue gain but would not be good for the long-term culture of the group. That"s not going to keep people here. We don't pay $160,000 for brand new associates. What we have is a family oriented and user-friendly environment, with a vested interested in everyone here. A rapid growth model would compromise that.
LD: Recognizing that, what are your plans for growth?
TW: We have a growth model that is built upon people progressing to levels of responsibility. We've been growing at around 10 percent per year; that's where we feel comfortable, certainly for the next three to five years. We have been very lucky to not have much attrition. If we saw an incredible opportunity for a merger or acquiring a group, we would take a look at it, but that would be the exception to pursue something like that.
LD: Do you have a favorite case that stands out?
TW: I've had some matters for individuals or small companies where the existence of the business hung in the balance. When you win a case with more than just money on the line, it makes you feel like you really made a difference.
LD: What about a particular aspect of a trial that you enjoy?
TW: What I most enjoy is taking those really thorny, hard to understand matters and packaging them in a way where you are teaching people and you can see them learning. You can see them get it, them saying: "I understand what this means." That's the essential part of patent litigation. You're equipping them to learn how to make a decision. That's just a great sense of fulfillment.
LD: What do you do when you're not in trial?
TW: I have two kids, a daughter who is 15 and a son who is 12. I spend as much time with them as I can. I coach my son's football team, and my daughter and I are big movie and art fans. My wife and I like to travel when we can, and I enjoy an occasional round of golf. When I'm in town, spending time with my family is my first priority.
LD: Do you still keep in touch with people from your home town?
TW: I grew up in the same town my wife grew up in. She was my high school sweetheart, and we were in the same class of 19 kids. In that type of place, you end up knowing everyone. I still go to Drexel quite a bit. I play golf with my dad and my wife's dad. We just had our 25th high school reunion.