Judges and lawyers are steeped in tradition and processes. Stare decisis — the policy of courts to abide by principles established by decisions in earlier cases — isthe norm, and change is an uncomfortable occurrence.
Still, the partners at Gruel Mills Nims & Pylman PLLC recently made a big change. On April 7, the firm moved from 50 Monroe Ave. NW to a new office at 99 Monroe — and left its libraries behind.
Federal courts have made the switch to electronic records, while courts across the country continue to do so, and Gruel Mills took the opportunity of its change of address to go digital.
“That is the way of the future,” partner Paul Janes said. “All law firms are understanding that it’s a necessity, but I don’t know how many planned a new office around it.”
Kent County business courts already e-file, and although no date has been set for a changeover at the Kent County circuit level, Janes said it will happen.
In the move, the firm teamed up with 99 Monroe owners, Franklin Partners, and with Springthrough, a Grand Rapids technology firm, to build an all-digital office to help move away from paper case files.
The digital move also will increase the ease of communication with clients. Janes said clients frequently request emails rather than letters from the firm.
“When you have paper you have to put it somewhere,” Janes said.
“You can store videos, pictures, emails, sound clips all in one spot to use in a digital presentation to a jury,” he added, explaining the ease of digital files.
“The clients we serve communicate electronically; they want information. We’re becoming a 24/7 practice.”
The firm’s website will act as a portal and allow the lawyers and clients alike to access the files. Clients also will receive electronic tablets when they come into the office to help streamline the documentation process to “have input from the very first step.”
The firm always has kept clients the top priority, Janes said, adding that the switch to digital will only make its service better.
“The founding partners were all at larger law firms and decided it would be best to create their own firm rather than a large firm where you have to follow a structure,” Janes said. “It’s a great benefit to us because we can represent clients who present unique and rewarding opportunities and help advance their causes.”
The Michigan State Bar Association has recognized Gruel Mills as a member firm of the Circle of Excellence every year since the recognition has been awarded.
Although Grand Rapids is still a relationship-based community where litigation firms like Gruel Mills rely on the referrals or recommendations of other attorneys and former clients, many potential clients now head to the Internet to choose their lawyers.
“It’s still a community changing daily,” Janes said. “There was a family-trusted lawyer who would say, ‘These are the guys you want to call (for litigation).’ That’s not happening as much anymore.”
In the past decade, Gruel Mills experienced the passing of one of its founding partners, Grant Gruel, and the retirement of another, Clark Nims. The remaining founders maintain a full and active law practice, but want more flexibility in how they work and more time to spend out of the office to pursue family and charitable interests.
“Having all of this technology makes it possible for the firm’s attorneys to be anywhere in the world, but they still have access to their cases as if they were sitting at their desks.”
Although Janes does not foresee any of the partners retiring in the near future, any law firm needs a succession plan. “We don’t want to drop off one bit,” Janes said. “But it’s hard to find a lateral transfer that understands our firm’s unique ideals and advance them.”
Just a few days prior to the move the law firm brought on Bill Azkoul as a partner. Azkoul had a local sole practice for 27 years.
“Bill fits the model,” Janes said. “We needed to make sure the firm has the personnel and technology in place for future success.”
Azkoul said he had been approached by other law firms in the past, but the situations just weren’t right. He said he and Gruel Mills have always had the same core principles. “These are people who have a lot in common with me,” he said. “They have a stable family background, vested in faith, and are people you can trust. I didn’t have to make this move, but I had taken my practice as far as I could take it on my own.”
Both Azkoul and the other partners are taking the technology change in stride.
“The industry is resistant to change,” Azkoul said. “We don’t really invest like we should in the things we need to invest in.”
Gruel Mills, however, has invested in the future — while staying grounded in the philosophy that launched the firm in 1985.
"Replicating the past 27 years is not enough," Janes said. "We are trying to build and improve upon it for the next 25 years."