Bob Dunn and John Black, founding members of boutique Spokane law firm Dunn & Black PS, claim the firm is just the right size to take on high-profile cases and match up against larger firms.
They started the firm in 1991, having left large Spokane law firm Winston & Cashatt Lawyers PS, taking some of their clients with them.
“They’ve been loyal to us since,” Black says. “My clientele is ongoing. I get calls daily from clients I’ve had for 30 years.”
The firm specializes in construction, real estate, employment, and labor law, handling some high-profile discrimination and harassment claims along the way.
The firm occupies about 4,500 square feet of space on the top floor of the three-story Banner Bank building at the northwest corner of Riverside Avenue and Post Street.
The partners share an ownership interest in the, 43,000-square-foot former Grant Building, which originally was occupied by a department store.
The firm currently has a staff of 16, including nine lawyers.
Dunn says about 60 percent of the firm’s clients are connected to the construction industry, although other practice areas are taking up a growing share of the caseload.
“We’re seeing more and more employment-related legal matters,” Dunn says.
Black says the firm represents a growing number of businesses as employees become more sophisticated about their legal rights, and employers want to be more proactive to avoid legal disputes.
During the recession, a lot of contractors closed shop and retired, Black says. “That spawned smaller contractors that are currently growing.”
Many of the firm’s construction contractor clients seek jobs outside of the Inland Northwest. “We’ve got several clients who do very little work in Spokane, but go all over the country, as do we,” he says.
Black recently joined the IR Global professional consultant network as its exclusive construction law member for Washington, Idaho, and Alaska.
“We’re continuing to develop clientele throughout the western U.S.,” he says.
Dunn & Black maintains an office in Seattle, although all of the firm’s attorneys are based here and travel to the West Side when clients need them there.
“We also have some clients who are based there,” Black says, adding, “Opposing counsel often is based on the West Side.”
He says clients have grown more wary of the time and expense of litigation since the Great Recession.
It’s still common to start a case on the litigation track, but clients often opt for faster resolutions, including mediation and arbitration, he says.
“We provide advice and recommendations to get projects back on track, and we’re proactive with contracts and advice on the front end,” Black says.
Dunn says construction contracts are growing in sophistication.
“Contracts used to take up five pages,” he says. “Now they may be 5 inches (thick).”
Some contracts have built-in options for dispute resolution.
“We’re seeing a lot of contract disputes go to arbitration or remediation before they ever hit the courtroom,” Dunn says.
Dunn adds, however, that he isn’t one to shy away from a courtroom battle.
“We still try a number of cases,” he says. “I’m probably involved in way more litigation.”
Dunn says he’s made a career of suing the government in labor and discrimination suits.
Authority figures often hide behind the shroud of a government entity, he contends.
“I don’t like it when the government beats up on people,” Dunn says. “I like leveling the playing field.”
The firm represented former Spokane firefighter Todd Chism, who was fully exonerated after Washington State Police arrested him in 2008 and searched his home and business for child porn stemming from a purchase through a credit card that Chism had earlier reported stolen.
Chism accepted a $2.4 million settlement four years later while the case was under appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The question of whether WSP violated protocol in obtaining and serving the search warrant was submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, Dunn says.
More recently, Dunn represented Monique Cotton, a city spokeswoman who resigned in February amid a rolling storm of controversy after alleging she had been sexually harassed by former Police Chief Frank Straub.
The handling of the allegation, especially by the mayor’s office, led to multiple ethics investigations, a failed mayoral recall effort, and continuing scrutiny.
“We had one primary goal early on to get Monique out of the positions she was in,” Dunn says. “It resulted in a job change from Police to Parks.”
After the switch to the Parks department, the city decided Cotton should compete with others for that job, Dunn asserts.
“She decided she wanted to move her career in another direction,” he says, adding that Cotton hasn’t decided yet whether she will pursue a civil claim against the city.
“She’s going to let the dust settle and make a dispositive decision in the next 10 to 12 months,” he says.
In another high-profile case, Dunn says he’s expecting a decision from the Washington State Court of Appeals about a North Spokane Corridor condemnation case regarding the Tapio Office Center, at 104 S. Freya.
He contends the state delayed condemning the office center, which destroyed the property value.
“The issue is whether the state can blight property in the path of a project before it’s ready to do it,” he says. “It will probably go to the state Supreme Court.”
In the private sector, the firm recently represented Washington Trust Bank in a lawsuit filed by investors in Club at Black Rock private golf course overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene. The investors wanted initiation fees returned after Washington Trust took over certain Black Rock assets from developer Marshall Chesrown in lieu of foreclosure.
“We argued Washington Trust took the assets and not liabilities,” Dunn says. “We got a federal jury to agree.”
Black says the firm doesn’t have to be big to take on big cases.
“We decided we wanted to be eight to 10 lawyers,” he says. “It took us five or six years to get there.”
The partners assert that the size of the firm is large enough to match any law firm on a specific case, and small enough to ensure that all team members are top performers.
Dunn adds, “At this size, we can keep our thumb on the quality of work. If you have 30 or 40 lawyers, you don’t know what the others are doing.”
Dunn says many attorneys that have joined the firm have had Dunn & Black on their radar long before they interviewed with the firm.
“They do a lot of homework and networking and have a sense of where they want to be,” Dunn says. “We hire nothing but top-tier, really bright and aggressive, Type-A personality attorneys who aren’t afraid to stand in front of a train and lob grenades.”
Dunn, Black, Rick Wetmore, and Susan Nelson are the principals at the firm.
The cofounders say it takes about five years for new attorneys to come into their own.
“We’ve had a lot of turnover after eight to 10 years,” Dunn says. “We’re responsible for giving birth to a lot of small legal firms.”
Dunn & Black has lost some attorneys to the firm’s own clients.
“Some clients stole attorneys from us to be put in their management or in-house counsel,” Dunn claims.
Black, who calls himself a construction nerd, says he designed the open office with no hallways. The attorney offices are along the windowed edges, surrounding a staff bullpen.
“We can talk across the office,” he says.
The office has three conference rooms. It also has an isolated “war room” set up to practice with witnesses to help ensure they’re comfortable when facing opposing counsel, Black says.
Though much of the firm’s law library has gone digital, Black says he has a collection of construction-related law books that aren’t available online.
Dunn says, “John and I are the only ones who use books. We like the feel of paper.”
Dunn, who has a frayed skull-and-crossbones pirate flag hanging in his office, says, “You won’t see a tie here, but we all own suits and know how to put on a tie when we go to court.”
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