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Elite leaders

Twenty-six lawyers have made the list every year since 2000

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Attorneys Andrea R. Stiles, Andrew M. Sacks, Hunter W. Sims Jr., James V. Meath and John A. C. Keith have more in common than just their profession. They are among the 26 lawyers who have been on the Virginia Business Legal Elite list every year since its inception in 2000 in collaboration with the Virginia Bar Association.

Ballots for the Legal Elite are emailed each June to nearly 14,000 lawyers throughout the commonwealth. Voters choose lawyers they believe should be recognized as among the best practitioners in a variety of legal specialties. Since 2000, the number of Legal Elite categories has grown from 10 to 18.

Being a veteran of the list is “something I’m proud of,” says Stiles, a partner with the family law firm Batzli Stiles Butler in Richmond.

She chose to focus on family law out of desire to “bring more of a healing process to it,” says Stiles, a child of divorced parents.

“There are new legal challenges for family law attorneys today. What has been the norm is changing,” she says.

Practicing law is a tradition for Sacks. His grandfather, Herman, started Sacks & Sacks PC in Norfolk in 1911 and practiced law continuously for 72 years, until he was 97. Sacks’ father, Stanley, has practiced for 69 years. He is now 95 and still hard at work.

“I’ve been at the firm for 37 years,” says Andrew Sacks, who primarily focuses on criminal defense because it is a “calling and a passion.”

His advice to new attorneys is two-fold. First, always be prepared. “There is no substitute for preparation,” he says. “In a trial, you don’t take shortcuts.”

Secondly, either fully commit to your client or to the system the client represents. Even in the most challenging cases, “the client’s rights still need to be protected,” he says.

Sims, who practices civil litigation and white-collar criminal defense at Kaufman & Canoles in Norfolk, has seen dramatic changes in trial law during his career.

“When I first started as a lawyer, most cases were tried, particularly in federal court,” he says. “Now, with alternate dispute resolution, a lot of civil cases are settled that would be otherwise tried. There is nowhere near the same number of cases being tried as there used to be, and I don’t think that is a good thing. Young lawyers, particularly in the trial area, have less opportunity to get into the court. I think that is a shame.”

Meath says “it’s an honor” to be recognized by his peers each year on Legal Elite. In addition to his practice, Meath teaches the economics of law at the University of Richmond School of Law. He is a labor and employment lawyer at Williams Mullen in Richmond who this year is being recognized on the Legal Elite list for his work in alternative dispute resolution.

“I have been able to research where the profession has gone, and the changes are profound,” he says. “The Great Recession in 2008 changed the profession forever in many ways.”

Some of those changes are directly related to the internet, which has made available worldwide information that was only available to the legal profession years ago.

Another difference is clients today are demanding “more for less,” Meath says. “They won’t accept rate increases without a value curve. Lawyers have to prove their value to clients in a different way.”

He urges young lawyers to reinvent themselves every three to four years to keep current. “Things are moving so fast, and you have to be more conscious of that to provide more value to clients,” he says.

The reliance on email and text communication in a law firm today makes it easier for lawyers to “get isolated and a little lonely,” says Keith, who practices commercial litigation with Blankingship & Keith in Fairfax. “We used to sit in each other’s offices and talk about cases, but we don’t do that as much any more.”

He thinks it’s difficult for lawyers to have a general practice today because of an increasing need for specialization. “I miss the variety,” he says.

That’s why he feels it’s important for young lawyers to “find yourself a good mentor,” he says. Seeing a seasoned lawyer in action can be very beneficial. “Learning from older lawyers is a great way to learn,” he says.

He also encourages young lawyers to find a legal specialty they really enjoy. “If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, the days get pretty long,” he says.

Below is a list of all 26 lawyers who have made the Legal Elite list for 18 consecutive years.

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