Richard Jones grew up in a family committed to service. Giving back to the community, donating their time to important causes, and being part of a service-oriented church all were centerpieces of his early life. Today he credits that background with shaping the core values that have made Jones & Mayer into the firm it has become.
We sat down with Mr. Jones to learn about the history of the firm which has been his professional home from the beginning of his career as an attorney.
Discovering his niche in municipal law
In 1975, Mr. Jones joined with three other attorneys to start the firm not long after passing the California bar. As Mr. Jones puts it, “I didn’t start the firm, the firm started me.” He became a partner about eighteen months after the firm began. In those days, the firm was a general services practice headquartered in La Habra.
At first, the firm did a little bit of everything. But the days of the local family lawyer were coming to a close.
As a young attorney, Mr. Jones was not really looking for work serving local government. “In 1976 the City of La Habra came calling,” he said. The longstanding city attorney was moving on, and the council wanted to promote his associate, Bob Hobson. “Bob had no law practice, so the city manager asked us to hire him as an associate and he’d bring the city with him as a client.”
Over the next eight years, Mr. Jones served as assistant city attorney, helping Mr. Hobson in his work and getting to know the city’s staff. It was a chance to learn from a seasoned veteran, and an opportunity to discover all the ways municipal practice aligned with the firm’s values.
“We were looking for something and the cities found us,” Mr. Jones said. “Once we found out how much we enjoyed it, it was a natural fit.”
Growing with care
In the early 1980s, two of Mr. Jones’s partners left the practice to pursue careers in politics. The firm was down to Mr. Jones and one other partner who was dedicated to a divorce practice. In late 1985, Mr. Jones suggested they break up the firm: he would keep La Habra, part ways with his private clients, and reengineer the firm to specialize in municipal law.
The motivation was simple: Mr. Jones wanted to build a practice that was compatible with his goals and values. “When you serve public agencies, there’s a feeling of, ‘We’re the good guys.’ We’re doing work that’s meant to help people and make the community a better place.”
“In January of ’86 it was just me and a secretary,” Mr. Jones said. Over the next few years, they picked up the Cities of Westminster and Whittier as clients and grew to a team of six or seven lawyers by the early 1990s. “It was a big transition,” he recalled.
Mr. Jones credits his development as a municipal attorney to his close relationship with the former city manager of La Habra, Lee Risner. When Mr. Jones became city attorney in 1984, Mr. Risner invited him to lunch. “He told me if I’d shut up and listen to him, he’d make me the best city attorney around,” Mr. Jones recalled fondly. “He passed along a great deal of his wealth of experience.”
Learning from Mr. Risner was not always easy. In the late ‘80s a city approached Mr. Jones about becoming city attorney. “Lee told me to turn it down. ‘You’re not ready to take on another city. You’re not ready to take on that challenge,’” Mr. Jones said.
It was a painful decision, but the right one. A few years later the City of Whittier came calling, and Mr. Risner said the time was right. “His advice was good,” Mr. Jones said.
Building a practice the right way
Mr. Risner’s guidance continues to inform the firm’s growth plans today. “As we’ve looked at different cities over the years, two thoughts always cross my mind: Do we have the same philosophies and goals, and are we as a firm ready to take them on as a client?”
To serve clients well, compatibility between the firm and the client city is crucial. Mr. Jones thinks about whether the firm’s values will fit within the city’s political and business style. For example, some muni law firms make political contributions, but Jones & Mayer never has. In some places, such philosophical differences make the firm a less than ideal fit.
Taking on a new client is often a growth opportunity, and the firm needs to staff up in response. “We are public servants, and we hire people who recognize that,” Mr. Jones said. Finding professionals with the right motivation to serve has been a key to the firm’s success. “If you’re motivated by making a lot of money, lots of personal attention, we’re not the right place. We’re cogs in a bigger machine, so we need to check our egos at the door.”
Mr. Jones looks first and foremost for personal integrity in the people he hires. “We’re not hiring you for just a few years like other law firms do. We want people who plan to build their entire career here.” For new attorneys, establishing a career in municipal law takes years. By finding people who share the firm’s values from the start, Mr. Jones has grown the team without needing to compromise.
A practice of continuous evolution
When asked about how municipal law has changed over the years, Mr. Jones doesn’t hesitate: “In the past five or ten years, the biggest challenge has been social media,” he said. “It has changed everything. The public has more access to information and a greater willingness to engage in decisions. It’s very immediate, often very emotional.” With so much added attention, city attorneys need to be on their game all the time.
The practice has also become increasingly specialized over time. Laws have become more detailed and specific, with narrow areas like environmental law or human resources matters reaching a level of complexity that demands a specialist’s focus.
“One of the hardest things in our work is to not engage in politics,” Mr. Jones said. “First off, it’s not proper for us given our role. But secondly, our relationship is a long-term one with the city. A council’s philosophies change with elections and we need to be flexible.”
For Mr. Jones, those challenges fade into the background when compared to all the benefits that come with the work. “The wonderful thing about being the city attorney is you’re helping to build communities. You can see positive things coming out of the work you do. As parks get built or programs start to help people, you have a sense of pride knowing you’ve contributed to the project.”
“We’re builders,” he said. “It’s a win-win for us. We can do something positive, make a good living, and give back to the community.”
It’s a legacy Mr. Jones is looking forward to continuing.