We live in a time where the worth of anything, everything it seems, has a price. Just take a look at the legions of regional law partnerships that are no more, acquired by larger, global firms.
“One of our advantages is we are a strong and independent firm,” says the plain-spoken native of Oxford, Georgia, a small town about 30 miles outside Atlanta. “We get plenty of overtures, but in the past number of years, I think the market has figured out that we are not for sale, and the number of overtures has abated.”
Ironically, it was entertaining such offers in the first place that convinced leadership of the firm, founded in 1949 by former Georgia Gov. Ellis Arnall, Sol Golden and Cleburne Gregory Jr., that it was better off as an independent firm with its own plans for future growth
About 15 years ago, Arnall Golden was on the verge of completing a merger with a firm that now has considerably more than 2,000 lawyers. The partners were pushed by the prevailing philosophy of the day: that mid-size firms that weren’t acquired would ultimately lose the struggle to survive on their own.
“The punchline is that wasn't true,” Eady recalls. “It was a seminal moment for the organization where we said, ‘We don’t want to cease to exist.’”
The firm has since fostered thriving practices in specialized areas of law from corporate mergers to private equity services, government contracts and real estate acquisition and development. And, building the economics that make staying independent attractive.
AGG’s success has relied in part on eschewing the practice of hiring large classes of associates, winnowing the ranks over the years and promoting only a few to partner.
“The single highest bar we have in this firm is getting hired in the first instance, not transitioning to partner,” Eady says. “Once we’ve hired an associate, our objective is to nurture and develop them to be a successful lawyer for 40 years.”
A successful lawyer at AGG, that is.
“Because that's our end-game model, by the time we've spent six to 10 years training someone up, we certainly don't want someone else to get the benefit,” Eady explains. “We don't draw a lot of distinctions frankly between whether someone's label is partner, associate or of counsel. We’re all colleagues.”
That model enables the firm to respond to client demand nimbly and more cost-effectively than its larger rivals.
“What our clients want and expect from us is the level of experience and insight that our partners provide,” Eady explains. “We don’t tend to throw dozens of attorneys at a given matter, so what our clients get are very seasoned, experienced lawyers working on and managing their matter, which typically makes us a little more efficient and allows us to add value at every point along the way.”
Eady’s own history at the firm illustrates the career trajectory that AGG prizes. He joined the firm after earning an M.B.A. from Georgia State University, a law degree from the University of Georgia and completing a summer internship at the firm.
It was smaller then, with about 75 attorneys compared with more than 180 now – some of whom work out of a newer office in Washington, D.C. Eady was one of only three new associates in his starting class.
That was by design. Because the firm works to retain their hires for the length of their careers, it always has more partners than associates, Eady noted, giving associates exposure to a broad array of career options and a wealth of different mentors.
Eady was one of the very few associates working in the firm’s mergers and acquisitions practice during the early 1990s.
“I got to work on a variety of matters, and there was typically more demand for my time than there was supply of my time,” he recalls. “So I would use that to my advantage to look for the more interesting things to work on or with the people from whom I could learn the most.”
One early case involved assisting name partner Jon Golden, now the chair emeritus, on Sysco Corporation’s sale of a large division.
“Exposure to that transaction was enlightening, and I also had the opportunity to watch and learn from the most respected and talented corporate lawyer at the firm,” he adds. “How he ran a deal was enlightening.”
In real estate, which would become another focus of Eady’s legal practice, he worked with partners who offered different approaches to handling real estate-related transactions.
“Those experiences provided me with easy takeaways and shaped how I built my own eclectic and fairly flexible approach to how I work on a transaction.”
Among the most significant real estate transactions of Eady’s career at AGG was the redevelopment of Techwood Homes, a large public housing project dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935.
A pilot program in the 1990s replaced Techwood with mixed-income housing known as Centennial Place that was open to both people requiring significant subsidies as well as those paying market rent, a model dubbed Hope VI that would come to dominate public housing for the next decade.
“I'm intellectually greedy,” Eady says. “Messy, complicated things interest me, and so the fact that we helped create the legal and economic model for how public housing was done for the next 10 years, that was pretty cool. One of the areas of my practice since has been in the affordable housing space.”
Eady’s interest in real estate law is a logical outgrowth from his childhood in Oxford, where his family had lived for generations and his father was a real estate broker and developer. He and his wife returned to the town to raise their four daughters.
“He had real estate lawyers who were around a lot, so that was my introduction,” Eady says. “By the time I went to law school, though, I wasn't nearly as focused on that so it’s interesting that I ended up with a lot of my practice being real estate-centric. It wasn't necessarily the plan, I was more open than that. But as I got exposure to various kinds of law, that's what I gravitated towards.”
Lawdragon: What kind of development did your father do – small, commercial or big?
Jonathan Eady: His was mostly residential subdivisions.
LD: And would you go with him?
JE: Of course. I would do everything from surveying lot corners to driving a bulldozer and clearing land.
LD: That sounds like so much fun.
JE: Definitely. On-the-ground learning.
LD: So you earned your real estate stripes.
JE: Exactly. Got my real estate broker’s license on my 18th birthday.
LD: And then college followed?
JE: Yes, I started off at Emory University, on the Oxford campus. My initial plan was to do two years of general education and then get a business degree, but I decided sometime in my sophomore year that I was enjoying things like philosophy and economics and political science and didn't want to exclusively do accounting and finance classes for the next two years. So I delayed that goal and ended up with a focus in political science and economics in undergrad. Then, I earned a master’s in business administration from Georgia State, filling in the business background that was part of my original plan.
LD: And then law school?
JE: And then law school after that. I was really, really tired of college after nine years.
LD: So in law school, did you think you'd maybe become a litigator?
JE: It was a thought. My personal exposure to lawyers, of course, had been in more of the real estate area as a kid. But every person who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the only images you had of the profession were the courtroom lawyers on television.
So I had those two exposures and a naturally curious mind, and I went into law school without a preconceived notion. When I first joined the firm, in the early ‘90s, we were coming out of a recession. I had an inclination, as did the associates who joined with me, toward transactional work. The firm didn't necessarily need three junior transactional lawyers at the time, so for a year and a half, we did everything. I had the opportunity to carry a senior partner's briefcase at a jury trial in federal district court; or write the prep memo for a temporary restraining order; help with a big M&A transaction; and work on financing documents and real estate deals. Which is something that lawyers in big law firms don't really get the opportunity anymore to sample. And what that did for me was crystallize my thinking that I am a deal lawyer.
LD: What about negotiating deals did you like?
JE: Everything. There are many more variables in a transaction than in some other kinds of practice. Your success and failure is measured on whether or not the client accomplishes its business objective and, along the way, whether you have captured in the documents everything that’s vital to the deal and mitigated the risk to the maximum extent possible. Beating the other side happens around the edges, in things such as getting a more favorable document for your client, but it's not a scorched earth, winner-or-loser environment like a courtroom.
LD: Then you chose well.
JE: I knew what I wanted to do.
LD: So why did you choose this firm? What was it to you at the beginning?
JE: Those of us who did well in law school had the opportunity to get interviewed by the big firms and I dropped my resume in the bucket folder – a physical folder - for each of the firms that were paying an enormous $1,000 a week for their summer program. I didn't know for sure whether I wanted to be in a small boutique, because some of those paid well, or a big firm. And as I went through the interview process, I ended up gravitating toward firms that were not the largest in the city, but were at the time just big. I ended up splitting my summer between AGG, which had about 75 lawyers at the time, and a very small firm, which had about 25 lawyers.
LD: You obviously felt there was something special about this firm.
JE: I think what's true today, was true then, too: that in the summer experience, we did a fairly transparent, honest job of showing what being a part of the firm is like and it felt like home. It felt like a good fit. One of the things I like about AGG is that we give every lawyer the opportunity to create their own career and anybody who can and will step up and step out, we'll give them enough support and enough rope to hang themselves. But, if you are comfortable with that level of risk or anxiety, then there is no impairment. Sky's the limit.
LD: And that’s the culture that you preserve by remaining independent?
JE: I hope so. When we bring new associates in, I want them to get the same opportunity to have a career in as pleasant and opportunistic an environment as I've had. From the outward-facing perspective, I think our clients in the marketplace need us because if your only option is to hire a small town firm and the other side of the deal is Cravath, you're at a gross disadvantage. But many of our partners have done lots of deals opposite the biggest law firms in this country, and never do we feel disadvantaged. I find it humorous if I'm on the phone and there are 20 lawyers on the other side and it's me and a paralegal on our side.
LD: You and the firm have built quite a reputation.
JE: Without us providing our level of skill and capability at both the price point and commitment to the client base that we do, I don't know who their lawyers would be. There are still a few other firms, a couple remain in this market and some in other major markets across the country that have similar profiles. And if none of them panic, I think they're going to have a long and successful run. By some luck and some very purposeful design, we’ve put ourselves in a position to be sustainable indefinitely in a very, very dynamic legal marketplace.