Civil Litigation, Oregon Style
At Bodyfelt Mount, we practice civil dispute resolution, representing clients in a variety of litigation matters. Our cases often involve insurance coverage, professional malpractice, product liability, drug and medical device claims, environmental coverage and defense, employment law, construction defects, trucking and transportation, and complex commercial disputes.
What we do is not unusual. What sets us apart is how we do it. Our approach to the practice of law practice springs naturally from our roots in Oregon and the state's collegial environment. We strive to provide the highest-quality service for our clients, while providing the highest-quality workplace for our diverse lawyers and staff. This has been our goal since the day we were founded in 1978.
Bodyfelt Mount: The Origin
In the mid-1970s, Dick Bodyfelt was a successful partner at a well-known litigation firm in Portland. Although he was satisfied with his product liability and insurance practice, and his rich client relationships, he had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the firm's traditional culture.
Earlier in his life, Dick had worked for bosses in the logging industry (he held an undergraduate degree in logging engineering) who valued and trusted their employees. These employees responded by doing their absolute best in all situations. In his legal career, he came to keenly miss an approach that equally valued the input of everyone in an organization, from "top" to "bottom."
Dick thought that there must be a better, more civil way to balance the production of high-quality litigation for sophisticated clients with the intentional cultivation of a healthier environment for lawyers and employees – both inside and outside of the office.
Individuals who felt valued and trusted would, Dick believed, truly value the firm's clients and provide them with the best legal representation and service possible. To accomplish this goal, he envisioned a firm that was truly transparent – a firm where everyone understood the firm's goals and felt personally invested in their achievement.
When Dick discussed his radical (at the time) idea for a more "civil" litigation law firm with colleague and law school friend Barry Mount, the response was immediate and enthusiastic. They planned a firm that would value integrity, hard work and an egalitarian spirit, while providing excellent legal services at a fair price, and embracing the fun and endless adventure that a life in the law can provide.
Bodyfelt & Mount launched in 1978 as a Portland-based boutique product liability defense firm, consisting of two lawyers. By 1982, with the addition of two more lawyers, the firm became known as Bodyfelt Mount Stroup & Chamberlain. In 2007, the firm returned to the name Bodyfelt Mount, which is the name that will be used throughout this article.
Four Founders Laid the Groundwork
Dick Bodyfelt came to the firm with a sterling reputation in the field of product liability defense. He graduated from the University of Oregon School of Law in 1969, and then joined a law firm in Portland (which no longer exists). About the time he co-founded Bodyfelt & Mount, he was elected president of the Oregon Association of Defense Counsel. A decade later, he was inducted as a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He transitioned to of counsel in 1989 and retired in 1995.
Barry Mount, too, was an insightful product liability litigator who also was interested in other types of commercial litigation. He brought to the new firm a charismatic personality and great sense of humor – qualities that became essential to its culture. Dick and Barry had been classmates and friends at the University of Oregon School of Law. After four years with the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps, Barry joined the law firm where Dick was working. He co-founded Bodyfelt & Mount in 1978, became of counsel in 2008 and -- after 32 influential years with the firm -- retired in 2010.
As the firm's first law clerk, Peter Chamberlain was "joined at the hip" with Dick in his product liability matters, assisting him as an investigator, legal researcher and analyst. He completed his law degree in 1978 at Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College and became the firm's first associate. By 1982, he had been named a partner. Over the years, Peter handled most of the firm's appeals. After 29 years with the firm, he retired in 2007. In 2018, he remains active in his profession as an independent mediator and arbitrator.
In 1980, Roger Stroup joined the exodus from the previous law firm to become a partner with the young product liability boutique. Before graduating from University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law, he had been a Navy fighter pilot for seven years – and retained a target-in-the-sights personality! Roger was appreciated by his colleagues for the enthusiasm with which he objectively assessed (and often eviscerated) his colleagues' strategies and documents. He retired in 2002 after 22 years with the firm.
Valued Clients Made It All Possible
The success of the young civil litigation law firm depended mightily on the number and quality of clients that followed Dick and Barry from their original firm. Clients represented by the departing lawyers were systematically notified of the pending change and given the option of staying with the old firm or moving to Bodyfelt Mount.
Dick and Barry had drawn up a list of the clients that they hoped would follow them, and almost all of them did. In a pleasant surprise, even some clients that were not on their short list chose to support them in their new endeavor. When Bodyfelt Mount was first established, the defense of insurance companies and their policyholders against product liability mass torts was a relatively new and highly specialized area of the law. Strengthened by Dick's background as an engineer who understood how complex products and equipment were supposed to work, the firm's partners eagerly embraced this practice area.
Because of its recognized expertise in this area, Bodyfelt Mount was tapped as local defense counsel on product liability matters by a number of good-sized nationwide defense-coordinating-counsel law firms. Plus, the firm received referrals on such matters from local and regional law firms who felt uncomfortable handling sophisticated products liability work on their own.
Around this time, Dick and Barry worked together on the largest judgment Dick would achieve in his entire legal career – a massive federal tort claims action against the Bonneville Power Administration. The case concluded in 1979 with a multi-million-dollar judgment against the federal government. This decision came at a critical time and was pivotal to the successful launch of the new firm.
In the 1980s, many large equipment manufacturers decided to self-insure rather than rely on commercial insurance companies for their product liability policies. Many of these had previously worked with Bodyfelt Mount and were confident in selecting the firm to represent them for product liability cases in the Oregon courts.
In It for the Long Run
Fueled by enthusiastic client support, Bodyfelt Mount grew. In 1984, the four partners purchased the historic Powers Building at 65 Southwest Yamhill Street as office space and a real estate investment. The firm owned this building until 1998, and continued to lease space there until 2004. In this new space, firm members for the first time enjoyed exterior windows and natural light.
Plus, the new offices included showers. Although the partners were a fit and athletic bunch to begin with, the availability of shower facilities propelled them into overdrive. They all became runners. Barry had inspired them by running every day for five years, with no breaks for illnesses or holidays. Running (and a general emphasis on the health benefits of taking time off for physical activity) became part of the firm's culture. At noon, all work stopped so that the partners could run. In 1987, five of the firm's six lawyers completed marathons.
Rick Lee joined the firm as an associate in 1986, as part of the firm's plan to broaden its practice beyond product liability into other areas of commercial litigation, such as breach of contract and securities work. He had earned his law degree at University of Oregon School of Law and became a partner in 1991. As the firm's commercial practice broadened to include environmental liability, he became the point person in this area, trying one of the first environmental coverage cases in Oregon. He has been listed in Oregon Super Lawyers since 2007 for his insurance coverage work.
New Concepts, New Practices
Because of the firm's commitment to equality and collegial practice, partnership at Bodyfelt Mount differs from partnership at most other law firms. Usually, law firms divide up their profits using a complex formula based on factors like business origination and hours worked, and partners often compete to "own" a client. At Bodyfelt Mount, by comparison, all the clients are "firm" clients, and the profits are generally shared equally by the partners. This model makes it much easier for the partners at Bodyfelt Mount to share their work, which in turn benefits the clients and the employees.
In 1989, the firm experienced a major crisis. As the lawyers were running in a nine-mile race, Dick suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Although he continued to be associated with the firm, he was no longer able to serve his clients with his previous vigor. The partners faced a tough decision. Would they go their separate ways? Would they merge with another firm? Or, would they pull together and make it work?
On the solid foundation built by Dick Bodyfelt and his partners in the firm's first decade, they confidently continued to build the firm, expanding its practice to include insurance coverage litigation for insurers, and defense of environmental, construction, employment and commercial clients.
It would be a mistake, however, to give the impression that the firm's most valued clients are entities. Each holder of an insurance policy is a person who is suddenly confronted with a serious problem and a complicated legal process – someone whose life has been torn asunder. At Bodyfelt Mount, great victories are calculated not in dollars, but in lives improved for these individuals.
A New Generation of Partners
During the 1990s, the nation's largest companies started taking steps toward achieving more diversity in the workforce. The firm's clients were overtly valuing diversity for the first time, and the firm's founding principle of equal treatment and opportunity had never been more critical to the business.
Eric "Skip" Winters, a graduate of Willamette University College of Law, joined the firm as a litigation associate in 1995. He became a partner in 2002, with a practice that focuses on construction defect litigation. In this capacity, he represents design professionals, developers, property management companies, general contractors and subcontractors.
Skip represented a new generation of trial lawyers. He helped steer the firm toward increased work life balance, and proved lawyers could merge work priorities with parenting responsibilities. In 2003, the partners started an annual rotating three-month sabbatical program that continues today.
Vicki M. Smith joined the firm in 2002. She graduated from Willamette University College of Law and became a partner in 2009. Her practice includes general civil litigation with an emphasis on insurance coverage, construction defect and professional liability defense. Following in earlier partners' footsteps, Vicki served six years as a practice group leader for the Oregon Association of Defense Counsel and is a past president of the organization. As a law student mentor at Northwestern School of Law, she received the Andrea Swanner Redding Outstanding Mentor Award in 2011.
Jason Gardner joined the firm in 2009 and became a partner in 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Richmond School of Law and focuses his practice on product liability, construction defect, wrongful death, catastrophic injury and insurance coverage disputes. Prior to joining the firm, Jason prosecuted cases for the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office.
Kirstin Abel joined the partnership in 2016 and became managing partner in 2018. She is a graduate of The John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Kirstin possesses 15 years of litigation practice concentrated on medical malpractice, product liability and professional liability matters. In addition to her involvement in many professional organizations, Kirstin is very committed to helping increase opportunities for underprivileged young women. She serves on the advisory board of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, and volunteers for several youth mentoring and dropout prevention programs.
Bodyfelt Mount remains committed to providing its clients with the best legal service possible. By combining high-quality civil dispute resolution with an uncommonly civil approach to legal practice that reflects its Oregon roots, the firm continues to thrive today.