Lisman and the Law

A second-generation Vermont lawyer has filled some big shoes.

by Cal Workman

Carl Lisman (second from left) was 5 years old when he decided to become a lawyer. Now, he's senior partner at Lisman, Webster, Kirkpatrick & Leckerling, the Burlington law firm founded by his father. With him are the firm's principals, Allen Webster (left), Mary Kirkpatrick and Bill Leckerling.

It was turning into a typical work day for Carl Lisman: 73 emails and 15 telephone messages awaited him and the day was just warming up. The poised and soft-spoken man appeared nonplussed. After 30 years of lawyering, the majority of that time in Vermont at Lisman, Webster, Kirpatrick & Leckerling (LWK&L), he has his daily routine down to a science.

His day, in a nutshell, goes something like this: arrive at 7 a.m., respond to emails and dictate 'til 9, return all phone calls before lunch, and spend the rest of the day meeting with clients, going to court or hearings or closings all those things lawyers do. He'll sandwich in a run and a shower if he has the time and then polish off his day doing research at the library or on the computer before bundling up a couple of hours' worth of reading material to take home with him. His workday ends "when I fall asleep," he says.

What might be a grueling schedule to many seems to agree with Lisman. The same things that lured him into practice in the 1970s hold true today.

"Lawyers advise and advocate, " he explains. "The practice of law is all about serving the needs of people. I still get a lot of satisfaction out of analyzing a problem and coming up with a solution that works my client's way through a maze and then completing it and saying, 'We did it,' and sometimes saying, 'No one else could have done it.'"

Since the age of 5, Lisman knew he wanted to be a lawyer.

"I wasn't sure I really knew what a lawyer did, but I knew it was a people business and I liked that, and I knew it was an intellectual challenge and I liked that, too." His desire to become a lawyer, he says, probably made his father, lawyer Louis Lisman, pretty proud.

Louis Lisman founded the firm in 1935 during the Great Depression as a sole practitioner operating out of the College Street building that now houses The Burlington Free Press. His brother, Bernard Lisman, joined the firm in 1946 and became a partner in 1952.

When Lisman was invited into the firm in 1972, he joined three lawyers: his father and uncle and Bob Manchester. Manchester has since left. They were primarily jury trial lawyers.

"When I joined, I said I'd do everything else," Lisman says. "Everything else" meant an ever increasing amount of non-jury trial and lawyer work focused on contract actions, family and administrative law, and business and real estate law. Ultimately Lisman found his niche in business, finance and real estate law, which remain his mainstay, even though he says in the same breath he's "part of a dying breed of generalists."

Today, 11 lawyers and 13 support staff work out of the firm's recently renovated Pine Street office where Lisman boasts "the best view of Burlington" from his fifth-floor corner office.

The medium-sized firm handles most areas of law, and each lawyer has distinct areas of expertise. Together, they cover a lot of ground, including commercial, employment, international and environmental law, contracts, corporations, limited liability companies, estate planning, immigration, intellectual property, divorce, bankruptcy, medical malpractice, partnerships and litigation/dispute resolution. While that encompasses a broad spectrum of legal areas, Lisman says the trend today is toward specialization.

He also admits he's probably "an awful business person" who would benefit from an office manager, but then he counters, "None of us got into the practice of law to be business people. We're professionals."

The firm operates with a board of directors made up of the owners. Committees within the board oversee various areas of business. Before LLWL accepts a client, it runs a rigorous check to ensure there is no conflict of interest within the firm. The case is then evaluated based on the merits of the claim.

Lisman smiles as he notes that his law office does not operate like the television shows LA Law or Law & Order. "None of those shows depict reality," he says with a chuckle. "The only thing about LA Law that I thought was real was when someone would come in with an upset stomach or a hangover. That's when they showed we are all human."

Lisman can't say how many clients the firm currently serves, but he holds up an 82-page printout that records every matter handled for active clients. Every action is assigned a number, and some client matters fill six to eight pages. Lisman says they don't shy away from controversy and are willing to represent either the "little guy or the big guy" in a lawsuit.

Eleven lawyers and 13 support staff work from LWK&L's Pine Street offices. Katina Francis (left), a lawyer, joins two of the firm's partners, Chris Jensen and Rick Kozlowski, in the library.

Recreation communities, ski areas, condo and homeowner associations, lenders, securities sales people and "a bunch of regular folks who have needs, including little old ladies with simple wills," top the list of Lisman's client base. Most of his clients don't go to court. The majority get what they want through transactional work.

The office is laid out like a town square with lawyers' offices lining the outside perimeter and support staff in offices on the inside, separated by an impressive collection of framed historic maps of Vermont, the earliest dating back to the 1700s.

The firm operates with an open-door policy, which means that office doors are closed only when lawyers are with clients who require confidentiality. Otherwise the doors are open to allow free exchange of ideas and good communication.

Lisman says the practice of law is very different from when he started. Most of the change, he adds, is driven by a changing society, one that is more urbanized and populated.

"When my father practiced, it was a lot easier for a lawyer to say to someone sitting in his office, 'You're a damn fool to sue your neighbor just because a tree hangs over the line.' My father could do that, but if you were to walk into my office today and I were to say the same thing to you, I'd hear, 'Well, the lawyer next door will sue, so I'm going there.' That's most unfortunate. People say we live in a litigious society because there's so many lawyers in it. There's some truth to that, but lawyers can't sue without clients."

Lisman also remembers less paper work. Back when he was studying for the bar exam in 1970, if someone wanted to sell a piece of property in Vermont, he needed a deed and a half-page transfer tax return and that was it, he says. He didn't bother to check with the zoning office to see if there were permit issues or visit an Act 250 office. What used to take an hour's worth of work now takes three to five hours. Lawyering is a much more complex profession, he says. "We have to do things much more formally and with greater detail than in the past."

With a great deal of experience in real estate, Lisman spends a lot of time with clients on both sides of development applications. Weighing in on Act 250, he says, "When Act 250 was written, parts of Vermont worth protecting were being pillaged. I think the philosophy behind 250 is right on. Over time the playing field has tipped, and on balance, there's more scrutiny of projects that probably the writers of Act 250 never would have looked at in the same way. I've often said to folks that there ought to be two sets of rules for development in Vermont: one for Chittenden County and one for the rest of the state."

The long-term consequences of a lawyer's actions are not lost on Lisman. He takes great pains in his work to ensure there is no loophole or oversight that could unravel an arrangement in the future. In 30 years in practice, that hasn't happened.

"All lawyers worry about making sure they cross the last 't' and dot the last 'i' and think very carefully about what we're doing before doing it."

Lisman's resume of achievements is long and impressive. Born and raised in Burlington, he attended Burlington schools and the University of Vermont during turbulent national times. In his freshman year, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and every student was required to serve two years of ROTC as part of the Vietnam War effort.

After graduation in 1967, Lisman enrolled in Harvard Law School, graduating in the top tier of his class in 1970. He passed the bar exam for New York and went to work as a clerk for the Honorable Sterry Waterman, a lawyer from St. Johnsbury who served as a judge in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals representing the state of Vermont. Waterman impressed upon Lisman the importance of weighing carefully every action, cautioning him that "what might work now in one setting will be totally inappropriate in a year or five or 10 years from now."

After his one-year clerkship, Lisman was hired at Debevoise & Plimpton, a major Wall Street securities and banking law firm. It employed 700 people and was run by the Number Two man responsible for the rebuilding of Germany after World War II (Debevoise) and the ambassador to the United Nations (Plimpton). Lisman had been advised by professors to head for New York City, the "major league" in the practice of law.

"They said I could always leave, but it's almost impossible to go somewhere else then head for New York City. Most of that's changed now," says Lisman.

While he describes his work at the firm as "beyond exciting," the birth of his first son, Joshua, in 1972 and an invitation to join Lisman & Lisman brought him home.

Lisman calls himself part of a dying breed of generalists. When he joined his father's firm in 1972 he took on all the non-jury trial and lawyer work. These days, his niche is business, finance and real estate law. Debbie Abrams is his legal assistant.

"My Dad and uncle cornered me and said they were both getting to retirement age and if I wasn't planning on returning to Vermont, they'd just shut down the firm," he says, smiling. He adds "They were better negotiators than I was. The irony is, I came back and Bernard is still practicing and my father practiced 'til his late 80s." His father died two years ago.

Lisman settled in Charlotte and raised a family of four boys. His wife, Debbie, is a guidance counselor at Edmunds Middle School.

Over the years, he has run up a long list of accomplishments beyond the practice, including many volunteer community service and membership association chairmanships, 17 years lecturing third-year law students on real estate law as an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School, and active memberships in local, state and national bar associations and professional organizations. He estimates donating about six weeks of his time a year to worthy causes.

"Volunteering is important," says Lisman. "You can't live in a community and not be involved in it at some level or another."

Bob L'Ecuyer, manager of the Cairns Arena skating rink in South Burlington, claims, "Without Carl Lisman's work and effort, this community would not have this facility to enjoy." As a board member for the nonprofit recreational facility, Lisman volunteers countless hours, L'Ecuyer says, supplying legal expertise, soliciting donations, securing financing and helping out in the stands or on the scorer's bench or in the penalty box wherever there's a need always with tremendous dedication, professionalism and no expectation of anything in return.

"He is the best you can find. He's articulate, thorough and very good with people. And he's always there for us."

While Lisman nurtures his deep roots in the community, he says he is passionate about his involvement as a Uniform Law commissioner responsible for drafting uniform laws on a number of topics, such as the Uniform Condominium Act, the Uniform Commercial Code, the revised Anatomical Gift Act and the Uniform Planned Community Act. It is a high-profile position he has held since his appointment in 1976 by then-Gov. Thomas Salmon. He has been reappointed every five years by subsequent governors and has served as chairman of the Vermont delegation.

Lisman spends a week each summer and many weekends throughout the year meeting with other appointed commissioners from around the country identifying areas of common interest and writing laws on those subjects for all states to consider and enact. He spends about two weeks a year lobbying the Legislature in Montpelier, explaining the laws to committees and working toward their passage.

He co-chairs the joint editorial board for real property acts sponsored by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, the American Bar Association Real Property Sections and American College of Real Estate Lawyers. A member of the college since 1983, Lisman has served on its board of governors and chaired its committee on common interest ownership. He has also lectured extensively on commercial law and the Uniform Commercial Code, corporate governance issues, resort and real estate issues and common interest ownership law.

In May 2000, to reflect the commitment of longtime partners, the firm's name was officially changed from Lisman & Lisman to Lisman, Webster, Kirkpatrick & Leckerling.

"We don't require anyone here to bill a certain number of hours or charge certain fees or bring in a certain amount of business. No one, from the most senior to junior lawyer, is obligated to perform at any particular level other than to do good work fairly and quickly. That may not necessarily be a good way to run a business, but that's how we run our practice."

Originally published in November 2002 Business People-Vermont