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Harrisburg attorney, law firm celebrating major milestones

Spencer G. Nauman Jr. is senior partner with Harrisburg's Nauman Smith Shissler & Hall, the city's oldest law firm, founded in 1871. The firm has six attorneys who specialize in a few core areas. Photo/Amy Spangler

Continuity and staff experience are among the keys to success of any business. No one knows that better than Harrisburg attorney Spencer Nauman Jr., who chose to practice law rather than pursue a career in the CIA.

A child of the Great Depression, the 78-year-old capital city native has been a lawyer for nearly 50 years, all of it with Nauman Smith Shissler & Hall, the oldest firm in Harrisburg.

Founded in 1871 as a general practice firm, Nauman Smith continues to fly under the radar in Harrisburg, a regional and national hub for government and politics that has attracted several large law firms.

The small operation has just six attorneys who specialize in a few core areas: railroad and transportation law, open records and the media, business and employment, and municipal and real estate law, as well as tax, trusts, estates and litigation.

To ensure progression and preserve its future, each of the firm’s four partners has a hand in various aspects of the business, Nauman said. Each of them also has been with the firm for 20 or more years.

Nauman is a 1955 graduate of Princeton University and 1961 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He lives in Upper Allen Township with his wife, Helen. They have three grown children. He enjoys swimming and traveling.

The Business Journal recently spoke with Nauman about his longevity in the law industry and his firm’s future in the midstate.

Q: The firm changed names several times before 1949, according to the website. When did your family enter the practice and what prompted you to follow suit?

A: My father came into the firm in 1914. He was the nephew of Spencer Gilbert, the brother of Lyman Gilbert, one of the firm’s founders. My father had been practicing law in Lancaster and thought he could do more in Harrisburg. He became senior partner in 1932.

In those days, names changed all the time. I came to work in 1961. I had been a law clerk during law school. I became a partner in 1967. Over the years, I was managing partner twice, and now I’m senior partner.

I liked the way lawyers think, and I also liked the people working here. I enjoyed being a clerk. I also liked the legal issues which the firm was addressing and still do.

How has the practice evolved over the years? What role has growth in the region played in that evolution?

We used to be a railroad town and we represented railroads. We continue to represent railroads. With the Marcellus Shale (gas drilling), there is more short line railroad work. Now we are doing a lot of open records work. We represent insurance companies; we used to represent the auto insurers and regional banks. Now we represent health insurance companies and small banks that have developed locally.

Your personal areas of expertise include tax, trusts and estates, as well as business and employment law and nonprofits, correct? How do you keep up with the ever-changing rules and regulations that might potentially impact your clients?

Yes. We take continuing education courses 12 hours per year to keep our license. Much of it comes from working with client problems. With the Marcellus Shale, little towns are worried about trains stopping at crossings. With health insurance, we’re dealing with potential problems arising from health insurance exchanges, the expansion of Medicare supplemental insurance and Medicaid.

Property tax reform is constantly discussed in Pennsylvania. What changes do you see developing under the current leadership in Harrisburg?

I think the eventual answer is a broad-based tax. The problem is, if you want revenue you have got to take it out of the middle class, where the majority of available money is, and the middle class does not want to be taxed. Further, since votes come principally from the middle class, the politicians do not want to go there for revenue.

What advice would you have for the law school graduates looking to practice in Central Pennsylvania?

They better have good educational credentials and know how to write. When I first came in, state lawyers couldn’t practice privately or practice between counties. Now, we have statewide practice and about four times as many lawyers. So, competition for legal employment is fierce.

Why stay in Harrisburg?

It’s the center of activity for our law practice. It’s the center of where people live between the East and West shores. To a great extent, where the office is, is dictated by convenience to clients.

What are the biggest changes you have had to adapt to over the years in this profession?

When I was an associate, you really arrived when you had your own secretary. Now I’m back to sharing a secretary. We answer our own phones. Now you have electronic (case) filing, so you don’t need a messenger. In short, the computer has revolutionized the practice of the law even more than other activities.

There are a lot more women in the practice, and that’s a good thing. Around 50 percent of the people (in the practice of law) are women. They are not quite as arrogant about their work. When I came, there were maybe two women practicing law in Dauphin County. Now, the law schools’ graduates are around 
50 percent women.

How did this past recession impact your industry and the clients you serve?

With a recession, our hours go up. Clients have more problems to solve. With the insurance companies we represent, people didn’t cut policies but they wanted lower premiums.

Other clients are more aware of government regulation and the changes, which trying to fix the causes of recession brings.

What is the hardest thing about leading a law firm, and what does the future hold for Nauman Smith?

The hardest thing is holding the thing together. Like any business, you have different personalities. There also is an emphasis today on marketing and community work.

You have to do everything faster and better than before. It helps to have almost 50 years of experience in the same firm.

What do you want your legacy to be?

One of the problems in the past was (partners) would drop dead. I emphasize that more of the partners are involved in whatever I do. We want clients to know they are represented by the firm and not by the individual. Otherwise, other firms swoop down and take them. I want continuity to be my legacy.

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