Best Lawyers’ ‘Lawyers of the Year’ Share Secrets of Success

Top-rated attorneys say publishing, presenting and even parenting have helped them in building client relationships

The Lawyer of the Year distinction from Best Lawyers recognizes attorneys with the highest overall feedback from peers in each practice area. Attorneys in specialties from franchise and regulatory law to construction and natural resources share their tips on building a strong reputation and client relationships in the Denver market. 

Lynne Hanson of Moye White was named “Lawyer of the Year” for franchise law, her first time receiving the distinction. While many think of fast food when they think of franchises, she said, the world of franchising can include everything from dental and chiropractor clinics to tutoring services. “You can franchise almost any kind of business,” she said.

Hanson advises franchisors, most of them based in the Rocky Mountain region, on franchise disclosure documents and franchise agreements and protecting and registering their trademarks. She also serves as outside general counsel for many of her clients.

When it comes to building a practice and a profile, Hanson said she focuses on sharing what she knows by writing for legal publications and blogs and through her involvement in the local franchise community. She’s president of the Denver chapter of the Women’s Franchise Network, a group sponsored by the International Franchise Association, and she mentors younger attorneys through the Colorado Women’s Bar Association.

“One of the things I just enjoy the most about practicing in this area and the people who I’ve met throughout the years — not just clients, but other folks, too — is the willingness of the franchise community to share their knowledge,” Hanson said.

For Ireland Stapleton director Tom Downey, the secret to success starts at home. “I think I am, in part, a better lawyer because I have three teenage daughters,” said Downey, who was named “Lawyer of the Year” for regulatory law.

“If I can figure out how to shop in the grocery store with their conflicting demands, I can handle any client and make a client happy,” he added.

Downey describes his practice as “all things regulatory,” a sort of “catch all” that includes cannabis, liquor, gaming and sports betting and physicians’ licenses.  “They’re all the same processes,” he said. “And you need the same approach, which is different from criminal, different from civil, different from will-drafting and contracts and all the other areas.”

Before joining Ireland Stapleton, Downey ran Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses, where he helped create the policies and procedures for regulating recreational marijuana and oversaw rulemaking to rein in the city’s rogue pedicab operators. 

He also served in the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, where he created the Business and Licensing Division, and worked as an assistant attorney general under former Attorney General Ken Salazar. While in private practice, Downey represented the House Democrats during the congressional redistricting trial in 2001.

Denver has a lot to offer those who want to be engaged in their community, said Downey, who has chaired the boards of the Colorado Nonprofit Association and the Colorado Children’s Campaign, and even took five years off from legal practice to serve as executive director of the Colorado Children’s Museum. 

Holland & Hart partner Kevin Bridston earned the “Lawyer of the Year” distinction for construction law. As a trial lawyer, Bridston represents clients in litigation involving heavy civil construction and commercial projects, often in disputes over project delays or budget issues.

Highlights of his 30-year career include a two-week jury trial in Denver in 2016 that resulted in a $9 million verdict — the second-biggest jury verdict that year in Colorado. “We collected every penny of that judgment,” Bridston said. He has taken about 48 cases to trial, which he notes is “a lot of trials” in the commercial world. 

Bridston has presented CLE programs and taught as an adjunct professor at University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and he and Holland & Hart partner Tim Gordon are co-editors of The Practitioner’s Guide to Colorado Construction Law, a four-volume book with several contributing authors. 

He credits his teaching, writing and editing activities, along with involvement in industry groups such as the Associated General Contractors, with helping him build a reputation in the field.

“I think another thing that goes a long way toward building that profile and building respect is treating people with respect and dignity, and fairly,” he said. “And I’ve always prided myself on doing that.”

“The thing about being a trial lawyer is most of your clients hope they never have to work with you again, because you don’t want to be involved in litigation,” Bridston said.

“But I do I do have a number of repeat clients, and I think that they are repeat clients because they know that I’m not afraid to try a case … And I think they know that I will tell them what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.”

Holland & Hart partner Susan Oakes was named Lawyer of the Year for venture capital law, an honor she also received in 2019. 

According to Oakes, when she started practicing 36 years ago, there were very few firms in Denver that handled venture capital transactions. “I could probably count on one hand the lawyers that had significant books of business,” she said. Oakes has witnessed the ebbs and flows in technology and venture capital law, including the fallout of the dot-com bubble and the arrival of big national firms on the scene in Denver. 

“Colorado has proven time and time again to be a remarkably resilient technology economy,” Oakes said, adding she expects the state to continue to draw tech talent and serve as an industry hub, in part due to the lifestyle and lower cost of living it offers.

As for advice on business development and building a profile, Oakes said, “the absolutely most fundamental thing to do is to be an excellent lawyer.” Clients have to understand that their attorney cares about what happens to them, she said, adding that this focus on a client’s best interests “is always going to pay dividends” in terms of client “stickiness,” or their willing to stay through thick and thin.

She said her time as general counsel for a software company was “absolutely instrumental” in her development as a well-rounded lawyer. Working in-house provides a unique perspective into management team dynamics, she said, and the experience helps her relate to clients and manage their expectations.

 “I think anyone who’s been in-house and has gone back to private practice would absolutely agree with this. The insight that you receive is tremendously helpful in private practice.”

Greg Danielson, a partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs, has been named Lawyer of the Year in energy law. The bulk of his work is in transactions for oil and gas clients, which range from small regional firms to major oil companies but are mostly larger independent producers in the Denver area.

He said one of the highlights of his career has been helping to build his firm’s oil and gas team, which includes two younger partners and five or six associates. “You get to work with a lot of younger lawyers and see them succeed,” Danielson said, “and that, for me, is the best part of the job.”

Danielson said building client relationships doesn’t happen overnight. “It always starts with providing really good service and attention to your client, thinking ahead as to what they need, and staying in touch with them.”

He added that many of Denver’s successful oil and gas lawyers have been involved in the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation’s educational programs through publishing and giving presentations. 

“When you publish papers, you get to learn a lot while you do it,” he said. “And then it helps get your name out there and you make contacts with the various people participating in that organization.”

DGS partner Randy Hubbard, who was named Lawyer of the Year in mining law, also recommended the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation to up-and-coming lawyers looking to build their reputations. He said he has presented seven or eight papers and gotten to know others in the industry through the foundation.

Hubbard advises mining companies of all sizes on transactions and with questions that come up regarding day-to-day operations. A lot of mining in the Western U.S. is done on federal land and pursuant to the 1872 Mining Law, he added, and a fair amount of his work involves helping clients understand the 140-year-old law and the title issues that arise from it.

“One aspect of the work that I didn’t expect when I started on the mining law side is there’s a fair amount of political activity around the Mining Law,” Hubbard said, and he has testified in front of Congress a couple times about mining law and the economic impacts of updating it to require royalties to the federal government.

While mining is a big industry in Denver and the Rocky Mountain region, Hubbard said the pool of mining law talent is small, so collegiality is key.  

“In terms of how you practice, it’s really difficult to be a jerk to work with because the bar is so small,” he said. “You almost always run into people that you’ll work across the table from again, and if you’re not pleasant to work with, that tends to redound to your detriment as you go forward.”

Hubbard said it’s his third or fourth time earning the Lawyer of the Year honor. “It’s obviously a nice little surprise when you get acknowledged by your peers,” he said. “I think it makes you feel like working hard and trying to be a nice person maybe does pay off.”

—Jessica Folker

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