Life Lessons and Post-Pandemic Predictions

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Homegrown Denver law firms Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Davis Graham & Stubbs, Holland & Hart, Sherman & Howard and Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell are launching an initiative to recruit diverse attorneys to Denver.

Three Denver business lawyers celebrating their selection on the 2021 Super Lawyers or Rising Stars lists have unique practices, but each share the acclaim of colleagues’ recognition and each continues to experience ongoing practice growth.

“I think, generally speaking, our clients come to us because they’ve heard something about us already,” said Jim Fogg, an associate at Ogburn Mihm. “And they see that we’re recognized by Super Lawyers, it kind of confirms, hopefully, what they were hearing from somebody else who suggested that they look us up.”

Fogg, who specializes in business disputes, estate litigation and plaintiff’s legal malpractice disputes was named a Rising Star for the fourth straight year. Like many others, Fogg had an unusual pandemic year, though, and many lawsuits have essentially been on hold as courts have not regularly been conducting trials. And, also like many others, as eager as he might be to get back into the litigation groove, he said he suspects innovations pioneered as COVID-19 may endure. “There are some things that will certainly revert back to the way that it was done before,” Fogg said. “But as fatigued of Zoom as I am, I think it certainly serves a very valuable purpose.”

A graduate of the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, Fogg chose his practice because he wanted one that would be varied. “You never have one day that’s the same,” he said. “And that’s kind of odd something that I strove to do in my career.” He began his legal career thinking he would end up practicing environmental law but after participating in law school mock trial activities, he changed his mind. “Unfortunately, I came to realize that environmental lawyers don’t go to trial very often.”

A new father of an 11-month-old daughter, Fogg said he finds his “Zen moments” with her. The career wisdom he gained so far is to “put your head down when you have to and enjoy the moments” when you don’t have to. “Try to learn that principle as quickly as possible,” he said. “It is a demanding profession.”

Clayton Wire, a partner at the same firm who has been a Rising Star every year since 2014, echoed his colleague regarding the benefits of the annual ranking. “I think it does help [with] potential clients,” he said. “You kind of figure out who … is concerned about their personal, their public reputation, enough to put enough effort to get on one of these lists.”

Wire, who has a practice that spans multiple states and who often represents whistle-blowers in litigation against their employers, sees his specialty as an essential tool to ensure ethical and lawful business practices. “Whistleblowers have a very important role to play in the policing of corporate America and the United States, especially amongst publicly traded companies,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of corporations don’t see it that way. They see whistleblowers as turncoats rather than assets for a company to encourage.”

While the legal framework for his practice is complex, Wire said he does not see much movement in Colorado to adopt statutes that would facilitate more accountability when wrongdoing in the business community is reported by an informer. “Many other states have broad anti-retaliation statutes that protect whistleblowers, folks who report their employers’ illegal activity or what they reasonably believe to be their employers’ illegal activity, and suffer some sort of an employment action,” he said.

Instead, Wire said, Colorado courts rely on a common law doctrine that forbids “wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.” The problem with that approach, Wire said, is that it provides a whistleblower with no protection for retaliation at work that is short of termination.

Wire grew up on 40 acres in Red Feather Lakes, a tiny Western Slope community where, he said, his family had no electricity, running water or telephone. “My parents were hippies,” he said. Wire helped his parents with a large garden and “goats, chickens, rabbits — we ate what we raised, mostly.” “We also did supplement with hunting when in season,” he continued. Now the father of two young sons, Wire still enjoys the outdoors and likes to snowboard and golf in his off-time.

Nelson Waneka, a partner at Levin Sitcoff in Denver, graduated from the Rising Star list to the Super Lawyer ranking in 2021. And while the litigation world slowed down through the pandemic, Waneka’s specialty in plaintiff’s side insurance law had him and colleagues at the firm seeing “cutting edge” COVID-19 cases.

A DU law graduate, Waneka said he appreciates that he is unlikely ever to experience all of the vast variety of scenarios in which insurance law is applied. “It’s not like we just do underinsured motorist claims or we just do property insurance claims or things like that,” he said. His firm also frequently handles efforts by business owners to obtain coverage under general commercial policies to defend against lawsuits.

Often, Waneka said, the “factual scenarios” are “just darn interesting. … I don’t know how to put it any other way, like there’s this huge scope of insurance-type losses,” he continued. “It’s just a broad world of insurance and insurance law, and you could never learn all of it.”

Waneka’s assessment is also that remote work is here to stay after the pandemic. Firms will still need a physical office, he said, if only to have space for trial preparation “war rooms,” deposition sites when clients prefer an in-person inquisition and periodic interaction with colleagues. At the same time, he said, many might now respect coworkers or employees who say they don’t need to be in the office everday. “That can be a real drain,” he said. “If people don’t want to come in everyday and they can get everything they need done and they know when it’s appropriate … to have no distractions or things like that,” then he thinks his firm will “try to be as flexible as possible.”

Waneka is the parent of two daughters. He and his wife, Carrina, lost a third daughter, Piper, to a rare brain tumor before her fifth birthday. He and his wife are commemorating a gift that moved donations to a charity they established to help finance research toward a cure of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, the pediatric cancer that killed Piper in late 2018, above $100,000.

Waneka said that the memory of his daughter, and his experience coping with the travails of health insurance coverage during her illness, inspires him to bring compassion and commitment to his work. For example, a pro bono client who was born with a congenital defect involving the absence of nine teeth desperately needed the help of a lawyer to convince her health insurer to cover her care. The operation “wasn’t super-expensive,” he said, but her family was unable to pay for it. “We got it covered. … And it’s cases like that make me do what I do.”

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