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The Van Winkle Law Firm featured in Citizen-Times story on Asheville economy

Asheville Citizen-Times: A new look to the law

Van Winkle branches out, evidence of expansion in Asheville area's professional sector
Written by Dale Neal
December 2, 2012

Adinna Augur Smith, left, a recent hire at Van Winkle Law Firm, works with her mentor, Anna Mills, at their offices in Asheville. Smith focuses the law and the online world, an emerging sector of practices. / John Fletcher/Jfletcher@citizen-times.com

ASHEVILLE — Adinna Augur Smith and Anna Mills don’t fit the mold of an attorney, not if you’re looking only at the old black and white photos hung in the conference room of the Van Winkle law firm.

Kingsland Van Winkle is pictured in his law school portrait 100 years ago, one of several earnest young men posed around a bearded mentor. When Van Winkle set up his Asheville law firm in 1907 with a University of North Carolina classmate, he would help shape Western North Carolina itself. Van Winkle’s signature is on the deed transfers from George Vanderbilt’s holdings to form the Pisgah National Forest.

At age 28, Smith is paving new ground of litigation that Van Winkle couldn’t have imagined a century ago. Smith helps clients protect and secure their property and privacy in an online world — an expanding area of law in just the past decade.

“With the rise of technology, every company is going to start having policies for online security and potential breaches,” Smith explained. “It’s a new trend, just now getting on the radar of young people who have grown up with technology and social media.”

Her mentor doesn’t look the part of that bearded professor. Mills helped Smith learn the ropes when she first interned with the firm and helped recruit the young lawyer to return home. Now both women are changing how their firm practices law in the 21st century.

Smith is the latest of nine new attorneys hired by the venerable firm since June. The city’s largest law practice with 110 staffers including 45 attorneys, Van Winkle is at the forefront of a new trend in Asheville’s growing economy — the rise of the professional sector.

The pro economy

“These are higher paying knowledge-based jobs,” said Tom Tveidt, of SYNEVA Economics in Wayneville, an independent economist who follows trends in metro employment in Asheville and nationwide.

In the past year alone, professional and business services have seen an explosive 8.6 percent growth, adding 1,400 jobs in Asheville and the surrounding counties of the metro area.

The sector includes a broad swath of jobs ranging from temporary office help, security guards and trash collectors up to higher-paying professions in law, engineering, architecture, accounting and computer design.

“We are seeing a shift in our local economy,” Tveidt said. While health care remains the largest employer, and tourism and hospitality provide many paychecks, manufacturing and construction sectors have shed many lesser-skilled positions. Many of the recovery’s new jobs are being added in the so-called creative class, where workers typically earn more with specialized knowledge and training.

Asheville has always had its share of attorneys, starting with the city’s first firm, McGuire, Wood & Bissette, which dates to 1894.

With an economy anchored by small, independent businesses, Asheville has always needed lawyers to make sure contracts are made properly, corporations are set up smartly, financing and real estate deals go through painlessly.

Not acting its age

But Van Winkle hasn’t been afraid to buck traditions in the business of practicing law and search for new opportunities.

“It’s an old firm, but it doesn’t act its age,” said Denise Gaskin, the chief operating officer since 2008.

Most large firms use an attorney or a certified public accountant to manage the billing and day-to-day business of running the office, but the partners saw an opportunity for a different kind of administrator. In 2008, they hired Gaskin as the firm’s chief operating officer.

“You’re crazy, I’m not a lawyer,” Gaskin thought at her initial interview.

Gaskin came armed with an assortment of degrees — a bachelor’s in exercise physiology, a master’s in counseling psychology and a doctorate in collaborate learning, but no law degree. She had worked a decade as a health administrator but was willing to take the plunge with the partners.

“They were willing to trust someone like me to run the business for them, to keep the lights on and make sure the place is locked up at night,” Gaskin said.

That frees the attorneys to do what they do best: practice law for their clients. Gaskin and other staff watch attorneys go into “trial mode” when a case goes to court. Some attorneys lose up to 20 pounds, living and breathing their client’s case.

“I had not really realized how much of a service industry the law is,” Gaskin said. “Every day lawyers are making decisions that can impact people’s lives. They put everything on the line, and if you’re a client, that’s what you want.”

No glass ceiling

For Mills, the attraction of working at Van Winkle is two-fold: living in Asheville area and having a “sophisticated practice.”

“This is just a great place to have a career,” she said.

A native of Clyde, Mills earned her undergraduate and law degrees at UNC Chapel Hill. She worked for a while in New York and then at a 300-person corporate law firm in Nashville before returning to Western North Carolina in 2001.

“There’s not a glass ceiling here, that has to do with this firm and with Asheville,” said Mills, who recently was honored with the Tribute to Women of Influence from the YWCA of Asheville.

Talking her protege, Smith, into a job at Van Winkle wasn’t hard. It was homecoming for the Reynolds High graduate who studied at UNC Chapel Hill, Cornell University and University of California at Berkeley. She clerked as a summer intern at Van Winkle, working closely with Mills. Smith wound up pursuing online privacy law for an international firm based in Boston.

“It’s very collegial. People have fun here. They like the people they’re working with and they help each other out,” Smith said.

But aside from the work, Van Winkle prides itself on the attorneys and staffers’ contributions to the community, providing much needed pro bono services or serving on nonprofit boards, doing their part as civic leaders.

Van Winkle has moved away from the traditional hourly billing and toward electronic bills that clients are demanding.

“Megafirms insist on billing huge hourly rates that we just don’t do,” said Albert Sneed, a partner in the firm since 1979. “This market couldn’t support the rates that people down in Raleigh and Charlotte charge.”

Like every other business, Van Winkle felt the crunch of the Great Recession. “That was devastating for a lot of clients, construction companies, suppliers, architects, engineers, land developers all of them were hurt badly,” Sneed said.

The recovery may be taking root in the area, given the uptick in business and entrepreneurial activity, Mills said. “Since this spring, we’re getting more calls from people interested in setting up limited liability corporations.”

The firm has done its part stimulating the local economy and construction work with a quarter-million dollar facelift for the offices on North Market Street.

The partners sees opportunities ahead in patent law and in privacy as well as elder care. Ahead, they will have to replace Gaskin, who has taken a similar job as COO for a larger law firm in Portland, Oregon.

Mills and the other partners see opportunities to expand their services to the local business community. Van Winkle will continue to grow, but not lose its treasured collegiality.

“We are a service industry, but we’re a little more adventuresome, a little more daring than your typical law firm,” Mills said.

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