Sitting on Defense

Mediation and litigation are the linchpins of this firm’s commercial practice

by Holly Hungerford

James Spink and Elizabelth MillerLawyers James Spink and Elizabeth Miller met 11 years ago, when both were working at Dinse Knapp & McAndrew. In 2000, they launched their own Burlington firm, Spink & Miller PLC, at One Lawson Lane.

Moving can be an inconvenience at best, but for Spink & Miller it’s also a sign of achievement. Located at One Lawson Lane in Burlington, Jim Spink and Liz Miller opened the commercial law firm on July 5, 2000, in a three-room suite in the building it still occupies. Over the years, the firm has grown and moved three times within the building. Today, it takes up an expanding portion of the third floor with offices that boast lake views.

The two attorneys have known each another for 11 years, having met at Dinse Knapp & McAndrew, where Spink was a partner and Miller was an associate. “I want to point out,” says Spink, “that Dinse Knapp & McAndrew were an outstanding firm, but I wanted to do a slightly different mix of work — more plaintiff work in addition to the defense work — and I wanted to expand my mediation practice. I talked to Liz, and we decided to do it together.” 

Miller echoes this, adding, “I saw it as an opportunity to run my own business and have more responsibility at a younger age than I would have had, had I stayed at a larger, more traditional firm.” 

Tracey Phelps, Paula Godfrey and Nicole SwensonThe partners share responsibilities, based on their talents. Helping them are, from left, Tracey Phelps, file clerk; Paula Godfrey, office manager; and Nicole Swenson, paralegal.

Their top-ranked law firm, which has received the highest ratings from two international rating agencies — Martindale-Hubbell and Chambers and Partners — practices in a number of areas: commercial litigation, products liability/chemical exposure, mediation and arbitration, insurance litigation, professional malpractice, personal injury, and transportation. Four attorneys are on staff (including Spink and Miller) plus a full-time paralegal, an office manager, a Champlain College student intern, and the office dog, Chester, who comes to work with Miller. 

Unlike many businesses, Spink & Miller has not been affected by the economic downturn, says Miller. “We’re very busy. The litigation and mediation fields tend to be more stable than other sectors of the economy.” The firm handles cases both large and small, in-state and occasionally out-of-state, with each attorney carrying a mix of cases and collaborating with one another as needed.

Few cases that Spink & Miller handle ever go to trial. “There are far, far, far more cases that go to settlement than to trial,” Miller says. “I think that’s typical of most law firms.” Today, the firm can expect, on average, to try one case to verdict every other year. During the 1980s, Spink tried as many as six cases in a single year.

Spink has seen an increase in the number of mediations he is conducting. “Mediation has grown up very substantially in the last 15 years,” he says, “and that continues to be the case as each year goes by. The mutual structured setting of a mediation has proven a successful method for getting cases resolved.” 

Thirty years ago, opposing counsel would talk to one another without involving their clients or having the help of a neutral third party; now the clients actively participate in the resolution of their cases through the mediation process.

While mediators are not licensed or certified in Vermont, meaning that technically anyone could become a mediator, most are attorneys or former judges, Spink says. Some specialize in divorce mediation, and others, as he does, handle civil cases. Mediators are typically chosen by attorneys for both parties in a case, and Spink figures he is one of the two or three busiest mediators in the state. 

Jon Alexander and Mary PetersonThe firm practices in several areas, with a focus on litigation and mediation. Jon Alexander and Mary Peterson are associate attorneys.

“I get a great sense of helping people — bringing closure to disputes — and I enjoy the neutral role. Helping disputing parties reach an agreement saves them money and sometimes heartache,” he says.

As directors of the firm, Spink and Miller have more on their plates than working on cases — they have a business to run. Miller handles most of the daily operations. “I’m everything,” she says with a laugh, referring to her varied duties as managing director. “I’m lucky to have a very good office manager. It’s key in a small business to have an excellent, trustworthy office manager to work with, and Paula [Godfrey] is mine. And Jim is involved with all the critical decisions, like hiring a lawyer.” 

Spink also handles lease issues, coordinating the reconfiguration and expansion of current office space, and has been in charge of all furniture and artwork decisions over the years. “We definitely share responsibilities, based upon our talents,” Miller says.

Learning how to run a business has been one of the biggest challenges the partners have faced. “We were lawyers, not business people, when we started,” says Miller. “I think just becoming business people in addition to managing our law practice has certainly been a challenge.” 

Miller, a California native, began her legal career path at UCLA where she earned her bachelor of arts in classical civilizations. As an undergraduate, she worked with an entertainment lawyer, and having found that to be a good experience, she took an internship with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. 

Realizing that she wanted to make law her career, she enrolled at Yale Law School and earned her juris doctor in 1995, the same year she married fellow attorney Eric Miller, whom she met at Yale. An offer to serve as a law clerk for Judge James Oakes brought her to Vermont, leaving behind the 1,000-plus-attorney law firm where she had practiced in California. 

Miller says she likes working in a smaller scale environment where people know one another and treat one another well. “It’s a collegial bar,” she says. “Everybody gets along. Vermont’s a humane, interesting, collegial place to practice.” 

Away from the office, Miller is vice president of the board of Local Motion, a nonprofit championing the cause of active transportation and recreation by developing regional trails and promoting walkable communities, among other things. 

Chapin Spencer is the organization’s executive director. “Hands down, Liz is simply amazing,” he says. “She has a great policy mind, the vision to help guide the ship, and the skills to make the visions happen. She has powered our growth since we started in 1999.” 

Miller also serves on the board of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and is president of the Chittenden County Bar Association. In what’s left of her free time, Miller enjoys kayaking and cross-country skiing with Eric — who works at Sheehey Furlong & Behm — and hiking with Chester, their hound-mix office dog. She has, on occasion, served as a dog foster parent and she jokes that she’s also a better-than-passable shower singer.

Spink grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and studied religion as an undergraduate at Middlebury College. In 1980, he earned his juris doctor from Albany Law School. About his decision to pursue a law career, Spink says, “I liked the intellectual skills, interpersonal skills, perceived portability, and living as a professional helping people.” 

Having attended college in Vermont, Spink knew he wanted to return to the state to work. From three job offers upon graduation from law school, he chose Dinse Knapp & McAndrew, where he stayed until opening Spink & Miller. 

Spink has been married to his wife, Sarah, a mental health nurse practitioner, for 22 years. He enjoys sports. “I play soccer,” he says. “I play and coach soccer ... I play, coach, and watch soccer,” he goes on with a smile. Their 13-year-old daughter loves soccer, too, as well as lacrosse, and their 10-year-old son plays lacrosse and tennis. 

Being able to balance life and work so he has enough time with his family is one of the things he loves about Spink & Miller. In quieter moments, Spink can be found sculpting in clay, stone, or sand. “Sand has been my most successful medium in terms of public acceptance,” he reveals with a chuckle. “People walking down the beach say, ‘Wow, look at that!’” •