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  • October 18, 2017

    Wm. Pharis Horton: A Strong Advocate for the Solo Attorney

    At age 83, he’s going strong – practicing as a solo attorney and mentoring the next generation of real estate attorneys. Wm. Pharis Horton is the 2017 recipient of the John Lederer Service Award -- he receives it next week at the Wisconsin Solo & Small Firm Conference.

    Shannon Green

    Wm Pharis Horton

    Madison real estate attorney Wm. Pharis Horton, pictured here with his 8-year-old miniature poodle Nelly, is the 2017 recipient of the John Lederer Distinguished Service Award.

    Oct. 18, 2017 – A guide. A lawyer with a keen sense of language and turn of phrase. An advocate for the solo and small-firm attorney. And is going strong at age 83.

    Madison real estate attorney Wm. Pharis Horton will receive the 2017 John Lederer Service Award on Oct. 27 at the 2017 Wisconsin Solo & Small Firm Conference in Wisconsin Dells. The award is sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section.

    John Lederer, the award’s namesake, saw it as his mission to help solo and small-firm lawyers master skills and technology to build their practices. Lederer was a visionary when it came to implementing technology into the practice of law.

    Those chosen for the award show “continued, selfless service to solo and small-firm practitioners across Wisconsin,” says Nancy Trueblood, chair of the award’s nominating committee.

    “I feel greatly honored and totally awed,” Horton said about receiving the award. “So many other people have done so much for solo and small practice. I very much appreciate the honor.”

    A Guide, a Strong Advocate

    Horton is an attorney who never sought attention for himself, but whose work deserves recognition, says Lowell Sweet, a past recipient who nominated Horton for the award.

    He has volunteered many hours over the years helping other attorneys learn about real estate and condominium law.

    “He is a strong advocate for solo and small-firm attorneys,” Sweet said. “He is always willing to help other attorneys who contacted him.”

    Horton served for many years as a guiding member of the former Solo & Small Firm Committee – the precursor to the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section. He was there to step in and help when Trueblood, a “very new lawyer” at the time, took up the mantle of leading the Solo & Small Firm Committee, needing to quickly learn how to motivate volunteers and the ins and outs of the State Bar.

    “Pharis was one of my primary guides,” Trueblood said.

    His experience as a solo practitioner shaped the section’s initiatives, she said. “They still inform the section’s work today.”

    Living with Extremes

    Horton grew up in the Ozarks and later moved with his family to Minneapolis, and attended college and law school on the East Coast. He received his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, and his law degree from Georgetown Law School, Washington, D.C.

    After law school, he served as an administrative assistant to Congressman Tom Curtis of St. Louis, where he contemplated his future if he stayed in Washington, D.C.

    He was on a path to become a lobbyist, “which I did not want to do,” he said.

    Looking around for a place to start a practice, he decided to return to the Midwest. In January 1963, he interviewed with a firm in Madison – and it was minus 30 degrees. It was his first time in the city. “When I later came back to write the bar exam, it was 90 degrees,” Horton recalls.

    Those temperatures did not deter him. “I thought, OK, I’ve seen both extremes – I can live with that.”

    He worked 21 years at Murphy, Stolper and Desmond, where he began a practice in real estate, as well as work with trade associations. In 1984, he went solo.

    “Fortunately, I had a strong client base at the time,” he said. He felt fortunate that he had experience and clients when he chose to start a solo practice – rather than starting as a new lawyer straight out of law school. “I don’t know anyone braver than that,” Horton said.

    Service to the Profession

    Horton, in addition to practicing successfully as a solo attorney in real estate, was active in creating the Solo & Small Firm Conference, and was instrumental in shaping the State Bar’s annual real estate update CLE program from the early 1990s, acting as chair of the program and as a presenter for many years.

    Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.

    Horton served on the committee that led to the creation of the Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company (WILMIC) – organized in 1986 by the State Bar in response to concerns regarding the cost and availability of professional liability insurance.

    He is an editor and contributing author for CLE books on real estate, including the Wisconsin Condominium Law Handbook from State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE®. He most recently contributed to the Real Property, Probate, and Trust Law Section’s blog.

    “I’ve enjoyed the relationship with the State Bar and the committees I’ve been on,” Horton said.

    Horton served on the Real Estate Forms Council of the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing, and has taught a variety of programs for attorneys and realtors. “A lot of the nonsense that one finds in real estate contracting and conveyancing is my fault,” he said, joking. The forms are very helpful for the practice. “You don’t have to start from ground zero,” he said.

    Practicing Solo

    Already an experienced real estate attorney when he transitioned to a solo practice, Horton was least prepared, he admits, to manage the business side of things. Thankfully, his wife, Carolyn, had recently earned an MBA. “She ran my office, and my life then became much easier,” he said.

    His recommendation for aspiring solo attorneys? “Marry an MBA,” he joked.

    Humor aside, he advises solo attorneys to:

    1. Understand and keep up with technology;

    2. Keep things as simple as possible; and

    3. Take advantage of what the State Bar has to offer.

    Look for CLE seminars aimed at the solo practitioner. “The State Bar does a marvelous job of keeping people up to date and giving them new ideas,” he said.

    And one more thing: “His sense of humor is priceless,” Sweet said.

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