Attorneys and lobbyists in Williams Mullen's Washington office: Jill Grabowski, Mike Ferrell, Singleton McAllister, Tom Jolly and Chip Nottingham. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR CAPITAL BUSINESS)

When Tom Frantz stepped into the chief executive’s shoes at Williams Mullen, it was early 2010 and U.S. law firms were knee-deep in a recession that dealt a huge blow to demand for legal services.

So one of the first things he did as CEO was to gather the firm’s 250 attorneys on a sunny Saturday morning to go to school — the Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary. They chatted with legal industry consultants from Altman Weil and a few of their own clients — general counsels and chief executives — about how lawyers could compete for work in the new, leaner business environment.

The idea was to stir up entrepreneurial spirit, Frantz said.

The firm is “trying to look around at what has worked in other industries as they’ve matured and faced flat demand curves, and trying to adopt smart things that help differentiate us from our competition,” Frantz said.

To that effect, Williams Mullen is tinkering more and more with an old formula known as the billable hour. Since 2007, the percentage of the firm’s fees from alternative fee arrangements — ways to bill other than charging by the hour, the traditional way that lawyers have charged clients — jumped from less than 5 percent to 17 percent in the fiscal year ending Jan. 31.

The changes came in conjunction with a rebranding initiative that included hiring a chief marketing officer for the first time, Kristin Richardson, and taking the unusual step of making the non-lawyer position part of the firm’s executive committee — a title typically reserved for senior attorney partners.

“One thing that quickly stood out is the firm’s messaging and brand had not been updated for a while, and was not resonating with the changing mind-set of business leaders,” Richardson said of the time she joined in 2011.

So to reflect the changing times, the firm swapped its former motto, “Every client is a partner,” in favor of, “Finding Yes.” The phrase highlights the firm’s approach to helping clients facilitate new business ventures and solve problems rather than caution about potential legal roadblocks.

D.C. lobbying practice grows

The firm also redesigned its Web site in December, and is funneling more resources into expanding a Washington lobbying practice meant to grow its portfolio from state to federal work.

Williams Mullen has long been regarded as a Virginia and North Carolina firm whose partners are major advocates for local urbanization efforts: Frantz is a vocal proponent of building a basketball arena in Hampton Roads, and Pat Gottschalk, leader of the firm’s economic development practice, is a former secretary of commerce and trade for the commonwealth of Virginia. But firm leaders are now pushing to elevate their reputation as a strong regional firm and become a player on the federal stage. In June 2011, they hired Mike Ferrell, the lobbyist who started and steered the federal lobbying group at Venable since 2001, to create and build a federal lobbying operation at the smaller Williams Mullen.

That year, Williams Mullen had one federal lobbying client, AFLAC, which brought in $30,000 in lobbying fees. By the end of 2012, the firm had added four more lobbyists and seven more federal lobbying clients — including Securitas, the world’s largest private security company — that raked in $710,000 in lobbying earnings.

Ferrell said Williams Mullen is smaller, faster-moving and less married to traditional ways of doing business than some larger international law firms.

“Size does matter,” he said. “The larger you get, the more difficult it is to be entrepreneurial. We have the luxury of not being one of the big behemoths that have followed the model for so many years and think there’s no other way to do business. We’ve got more flexibility and have to be more innovative and competitive.”

Ferrell cited the firm’s work with Securitas as an example. His team not only lobbies on potential legislation but also advises the company on opportunities to do business with the government to provide security screening at airports — per a recent change in the Federal Aviation Administration law that allows airports to opt out of the federal passenger screening program and hire private companies to provide the same screening services.

“We advise on how to fashion applications, how to strategize with the TSA and airports, and work with trade associations,” Ferrell said. “It’s that sort of thing were you can help provide advice on a business model that might work for them.”

Chief executive Frantz said the firm is betting that offering such counsel, sometimes for no cost, pays dividends down the road.

“We’ve attended board meetings without charge, taken walks on the beach with CEOs without charge, and try to give them our views on their business without being obvious we’re also looking for legal work flowing out of that,” he said.