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Oct. 8, 2018
The banners are up on the windows at 11th Street and Main Avenue in downtown Sioux Falls proclaiming the news, but beyond that, one of South Dakota’s oldest law firms won’t be throwing itself a big celebration to mark 140 years in business.
Instead, Boyce Law Firm LLP is investing in the people who will be needed if the firm is to mark another century or more.
In honor of its 140th anniversary, the firm is funding several years of an experience-based course at the University of South Dakota School of Law.
“We thought it was a more meaningful gift, and it’s consistent with our goal of developing younger people,” said attorney Tom Welk, who has practiced at Boyce since 1979.
The firm recently completed a strategic planning process to chart its course while reflecting on the changing forces in the legal profession.
It was founded by Frank Boyce in 1878, who visited Sioux Falls, liked it and decided to move from Chicago. His brother, Jesse, later followed him and became an attorney. The firm has held various names over the years — Boyce & Boyce; Boyce, Murphy, McDowell & Greenfield; Boyce, Greenfield, Pashby & Welk; and finally Boyce Law Firm LLP in 2015.
The original office was in the Boyce-Greeley Building at 11th Street and Phillips Avenue. The firm spent many years in the Wells Fargo building at Ninth and Phillips before moving to the historic Wintersteen Chevrolet building at 11th and Main in 2012.
“One of the most key strategic decisions was moving here,” Welk said. “No one knew who we were in (the Wells Fargo building), and now it’s one of the better locations in town.”
The firm has grown from nine attorneys in 2003 to 22, increasing its litigation work and diversifying its practice areas.
The legal landscape is changing, both locally and broadly, Welk said.
There’s LegalZoom and other similar services, where people are going to draft a will or conduct basic business legal work.
“Millennials are less enthralled with paying people,” he said. “They want to go on the internet and download forms. If a millennial wants to do a will, they’re usually not talking to a lawyer. Long-term, we’re going to be fixing those issues (that can arise because of it).”
The Sioux Falls market also has seen an increased presence from out-of-state firms as well as more businesses employing their own lawyers instead of using firms.
“You ask where their clients are, and they’re really not in South Dakota,” Welk said. “They have some, but they’re a back office to larger firms, which is fine. To us, it’s a competitive challenge.”
The firm’s approach to succession planning has involved both people development and a focus on which practice areas are sustainable or growing, he said.
That leads directly back to the law school, where bar passage rates turned around last year after dropping precariously for several before that.
About 70 percent of its graduates remain in South Dakota, which is also an improvement from where it had been, Welk said.
“I think men and women are figuring out what it costs to go to law school and then seeing the employment opportunities, and what’s been coming in South Dakota are people who see South Dakota as a good value, but they’re not from South Dakota, so they’re going back to their home states.”
South Dakota also has imported graduates, though. A survey of Boyce Law Firm found its attorneys are split between USD and University of Nebraska alumni.
“It is absolutely necessary for the law school to have friends like Boyce,” said the law school’s dean, Thomas Geu, adding the firm is known for its “integrity, customer care, professionalism and honesty.”
Welk, who has helped teach at the school for decades, was instrumental in developing the course Boyce now is helping fund.
It’s a practical drafting class, where law students take a hands-on approach to work on everything from writing wills to dealing with divorce cases as they work on hypothetical projects.
“This really pre-dated much of the national movement to more experiential learning,” Geu said.
In past eras, law students would receive more mentoring and teaching at firms after graduation. Now, many don’t stay very long at one place or go right into business for themselves in smaller communities.
“So we, together with firms like Boyce, have rediscovered the necessity of providing more experiential learning, kind of like a medical residency,” Geu said. “And those kinds of skills are best taught by actually doing cases or projects that you would do in practice.”
The Boyce Law Firm is taking a more intentional development approach with new attorneys, Welk said.
“We have developed a more formal associate training program,” he said. “We want them to feel comfortable with what they’re doing. We want to be nimble in our culture. You don’t see a lot of ties around here — obviously, when we go to court or with certain clients, but this is the culture of today. It’s a different world.”
The firm also has focused on areas of practice including estate planning and professional liability cases.
“We defend doctors, lawyers, engineers, and that’s been a broad area where we do a lot of work,” Welk said.
The hope is that by hiring strong lawyers with local ties and investing in developing them, the firm will be able to retain them and build on its legacy, he added.
“The 140 years is important, but young people want to know where you’re going to go for the next four or five,” Welk said. “But it does provide the stability. We’re not going away.”
Boyce Law Firm is marking 140 years by investing in the future of its firm and others.