When two young attorneys, Lon Dale and Mike Milodragovich, started their first small law firm in 1975, there were barely any women in the profession, attorneys made $15 to $20 per hour, typewriters were the tools of the trade and they had only one employee.
Now, as the Milodragovich, Dale and Steinbrenner firm celebrates its 40th anniversary with 35 employees – including interns – Dale can reflect on some of the enormous changes he has witnessed in the industry.
“I don’t consider myself a dinosaur, but at the same time there’s been a lot of evolution in the legal profession in that short period of time,” he said from the firm's shiny building in south Missoula.
Dale, 69, graduated from the University of Montana with Milodragovich in 1971. They spent time in the Reserve Officers Training Corps and worked as deputy county attorneys, and Dale was a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper. When they started their firm, most women weren’t even considering careers in law.
“When Mike and I went to law school, there was one lady in our class of about 44,” he said. “And now if you check with the law school, I would venture to say that it’s pretty close to 50/50 and it might actually be more women than men. The result is that the legal profession has changed significantly in the last 45 years because of women.”
Dale still remembers when Diane Barz of Bozeman became the first female Montana Supreme Court justice in 1989.
“Women just weren’t in the legal profession,” he said. “They were a significant minority. And over the last 45 years they’ve come of age. Right here, of course, in Missoula County, both our justices of the peace are women, our Municipal Court judge is a woman, Karen Townsend and Leslie Halligan are two of our four District Court judges – so 50 percent of our judiciary is women. We have three women out of seven on the Montana Supreme Court. So women have come into the profession in the last 45 years in a significant way, just like they have in other professions. And it’s been a good thing for us, too.”
Dale said the firm’s attorneys have been instrumental in many landmark cases in Montana over the years, and the resulting decisions have affected the lives of many Montanans.
“Every case that we handle is significant,” he said. “We do a lot of litigation – probably 60 percent litigation. We do transactional stuff, too, and probates and estates and things like that. We don’t do any domestic relations anymore. The problem with doing divorces is that, in the end, nobody likes you. It’s an unpleasant experience for both people and so you are part of it. I mean, we can do a great job, but it probably isn’t appreciated. We do some high-end stuff, but it’s not a significant part of what we do. And we don’t do any criminal representation to speak of. Some, but a major aspect of our firm is not criminal defense.”
Civil litigation has become the primary focus of the company in the past 20 years.
“We represent plaintiffs and defendants and insurance companies, and we take cases against insurance companies,” Dale explained. “So we have to keep track of who we represent and who we don’t. So we watch our conflicts of interest.”
Back in May, firm shareholder Patrick Hagestad won a big case on behalf of nearly 100 former employee-owners of the now-defunct grocery chain Tidyman’s. A district court judge ruled in favor of the employees and issued an order that enforced a $29 million stipulated judgment against the chain’s insurer when it breached its duty to defend certain executives. The employee-held stock, which they were depending on for retirement savings, were left worthless because of executive mismanagement in a merger.
“They still haven’t gotten their money, but they are one step closer to it,” Dale said.
Dale remembers other landmark cases, including Workman v. McIntyre Construction from 1980, which changed Montana’s case law on demonstrative evidence, and Larson v. Squire Shops from 1987, which is a leading case for workers’ compensation for domiciliary care. Many of the firm’s cases have gone to the state Supreme Court and the resulting decisions are now cited as the legal precedent for other decisions.
The National Pro Bono Celebration is coming up Oct. 25-31, and Dale said his firm has provided countless hours of free or reduced-charge service.
“We’ve done a lot of things that we would do on assignment from the courts or just because people couldn’t afford their own attorney,” he said. “It helps a lot of people who think it’s going to be too expensive. I think it’s really important. A lot of people don’t want to get involved with lawyers because they think it’s going to be too expensive, and that’s unfortunate because some people will get taken advantage of. But most attorneys in Missoula are good at helping people or consulting with them without an initial charge.”
Dale also said the legal profession is a huge contributor to Missoula’s economy.
“I would guess that about one-seventh of the attorneys in Montana live in Missoula,” he said. “There are about 3,500 licensed attorneys in the state, and about 3,000 of them are practicing. Well, Missoula and the surrounding area has about 500 attorneys. Of course, that’s because we have the only law school in the state and people like living here. But what people forget is the legal profession is a business. We employ 35 people and you look at all the law firms in Missoula, they’re a big part of the economic sector. Missoula has become kind of a legal homebase, if you will – a headquarters, a place where a lot of attorneys reside.”
Dale said that since the advent of electronic filing, attorneys don’t actually have to live in the city where they are practicing.
“You can be in Missoula and be practicing law in Billings,” he said. “You can be doing depositions by video. We do a lot of that now. Law has evolved with technology. It has increased the efficiency of the way we do business.”
Dale said when he first started, it was a big deal when local attorneys started charging $25 per hour.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, imagine that,’ ” he recalled. “Now, depending on the specialty, the hourly rate for attorneys is anywhere from $125 to $300 an hour for most attorneys in Missoula. There’s some specialty firms that charge a lot more.”
Dale said he doubts people realize just how important law firms are to Missoula’s economy.
“I know that the state Legislature doesn’t,” he said. “We’re business people. They look at lawyers as being out for themselves, but we provide a lot of good jobs with good pay and do a lot for the community.”