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Balancing justice, business savvy
Executive Q&A with Tom Wolfe

By Don Mecoy Published: July 27, 2008
Oklahoma City has several large law firms, and they compete for clients and prestige.

Tom Wolfe, president and general partner of the city's third-largest firm, Phillips McFall, has been at the helm of the business since 2002.

In those six years, the firm has added more lawyers and other professional staff, and has expanded to fill new downtown office space.

Wolfe, 50, spends most of his time practicing law. And his law practice has been successful. Most noteworthy was his lead position in the firm's handling of all Oklahoma litigation involving the anti-obesity drug fen-phen.

"That was the most intense, but interesting litigation I've ever been involved in,” Wolfe said of his 10 years of dealing directly as an attorney defending Wyeth, the pharmaceutical company that manufactured the drug.

Wolfe last week sat down with The Oklahoman for an interview in a conference room down the hall from his office. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: Do you think lawyers make good businessmen?

A: By reputation, no.

Q: Has that been your experience?

A: I don't really have a business background so there's been a learning curve for me and I've certainly made mistakes along the way. My background's actually in journalism. So the business side sometimes is a little bit difficult for me. It's one of those things where I spend a bit more time than some people.

Certainly the practice of law has changed so much over the years. When I was a young associate just out of law school, one of the partners came in and said "The practice of law is changing. It's no longer a profession; it's a business. Everyone needs to get used to it.” I didn't really understand that at the time. Now you see it with some large national firms that really are run like corporate America. There's a bit of a trickle-down effect.

We have the same concerns, the same issues — profitability, balance sheet and all that other businesses do. At the end of the day, we like so many other businesses do need to make a profit.

Q: Do you think the traditional law firm business model is the best model?

A: I think for the most part, change is good. I started practicing in mid-1980s, and firms at that point in Oklahoma were not run as a business model. It was, "do the work and we'll send out the bills at some point and maybe we'll get paid.”

A lot of firms failed during that period. I think lawyers have become smarter; they've become better business people. They've had to.

I think today's model is a lot better than yesterday's model.

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Personally speaking
Position: President, managing partner of Phillips McFall.

Age: 50.

Hometown: Oklahoma City.

Family: Wife, Gigi; two teenage children.

Education: University of Oklahoma.

Hobbies: Running, biking, snow skiing, water skiing, boating.

Favorite book: "John Adams,” by David McCullough.

Favorite movie: "Stand by Me.”

Web page just for fun: "Lost” fan pages.

Favorite vacation spot: San Diego.


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