For Joe Denton and Justin Zachary, the idea to start a law firm came about – as most good ideas do – over lunch. Both attended law school in Little Rock, and Denton – who had been practicing solo since 2013 – met Zachary through a mutual friend. Zachary, a Memphis native, had been practicing with a larger firm for a few years and was ready to strike out on his own – though, as he puts it, “I had no idea how to do that. I didn’t know if I needed $5 or $500,000.”
Originally, Zachary only asked Denton to lunch to get advice on starting his own practice. That first meeting turned into three, and while Denton says he “coaxed” Zachary into building a practice together, Zachary describes it as more of a gut feeling: “It just clicked,” he said.
Denton & Zachary, PLLC, opened its doors in 2017, and around that same time, the firm’s third associate, Andrew Norwood, graduated from law school and joined the team.
The firm has offices in Conway, Little Rock and Memphis. Though primarily based in Arkansas, Denton & Zachary has extended its reach in the past few years and currently has cases in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Missouri. “With the way our state is – being around this transportation hub and the interstates going through – you get the opportunity to meet a lot of people,” Zachary explained. “It’s almost taken more of a regional feel.”
Both attorneys describe the past five years as a rewarding and, at times, hectic adventure.
“Professionally, it’s probably been the best choice that I’ve made in my career so far,” Denton said.
The firm primarily deals with personal injury and public interest cases. As far as day-to-day operations go, Zachary said, “Most of our time is spent preparing to go to court. I tell clients that we don’t win the case at trial – we win the case by preparing for trial. If we’re waiting to win it at trial, we’ve probably already lost.”
The decision to go into personal injury law was a natural extension of the attorneys’ passion for helping others.
“Joe and I could have gone and worked at an hourly firm, working for corporations,” Zachary noted, “but that just wasn’t as personally fulfilling for us. A lot of times, we’re the little guys going against the big guys, and those are the people who really need the help. You have just as much access to the courtroom as anybody.”
With only three attorneys, a couple of full-time staff members and one or two law clerks on rotation at any given time, Denton describes the team as “a very lean outfit.” Being a smaller firm has its advantages and disadvantages, but Denton adds that it allows for a more intimate, one-on-one style of practice that better complements the attorneys’ personalities and benefits their clients.
“The size of our firm, our leanness and our ability to pivot quickly, are all strategic advantages when working on an injury case,” he said. “I would say the biggest distinguishing factor is the personal touch.”
Despite its size, Denton & Zachary isn’t afraid to punch above its weight. Sometimes, that means taking on insurance companies and big corporations. Other times, Denton, Zachary and Norwood have found themselves facing the likes of the Arkansas State Police and the Arkansas Department of Transportation.
“We do not have an army behind us,” Zachary said. “A lot of times, it does have that ‘David and Goliath’ feel. We’re usually going up against corporations that have practically unlimited resources. But when they talk about the scales being balanced, and everyone being equal in the eyes of the law – that’s real life. It’s true.”
In a case spearheaded by Norwood against the Arkansas State Police, the firm was able to secure a settlement agreement for plaintiff Janice Nicole Harper. Harper was the victim of a “PIT maneuver,” or precision immobilization technique during an attempted traffic stop, which caused her to crash. As a result of this case, the state police updated their Use of Force policy and instituted an objective standard for the use of PIT maneuvers.
“Not only were we able to get legal remedy for our client,” Zachary said, “we were able to be a part of policy change. It’s probably one of the proudest things that we’ve been a part of. You always feel like you make a difference, but to actually be able to see it on paper, in writing – I was very blessed to be a part of it.”
More recently, the firm has been involved in a case that has made its way up to the Arkansas Supreme Court. In a suit filed on behalf of a group of taxpayers, Denton & Zachary challenged the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) over its allocation of funding for highway projects through Amendment 91. The goal of the suit is to make sure those funds go towards projects across the state instead of being concentrated in Little Rock.
Zachary explained the case simply, though he did admit that the “legal nerd” in him was excited to dig into the weeds of constitutional provisions and interpretations. When it comes to the suit’s argument, he said, “It was clear: The funding should be for these four-lane highways across the state to connect rural and unconnected areas. The question was, why is so much money being spent on 10 miles in Little Rock?”
“It is profound to think that two ordinary citizens can have such a direct impact on public policy in the state of Arkansas,” Denton added.
“It’s not just us as attorneys, but the people who are brave enough as plaintiffs to come forward, stand up and put their name on something to make sure these things don’t happen again. Most people won’t have the opportunity to directly engage their government beyond suffrage and jury service. We’re very fortunate to be in a position where we get to do that every day.”
The pair admit that the magnitude of their work can put a strain on their work-life balance, but at the same time, it is that incredible level of trust from their clients that motivates them to work harder. “That’s not something we take lightly around here,” Zachary said, “but sometimes, that’s the most pressure-filled part.”
When it comes to their work outside of the courtroom, Denton and Zachary are involved in improving access to justice on multiple fronts. On one hand, that means presenting an image of lawyers that goes against the stereotypes and informs people of their legal options.
“If you get hurt and can’t work, you don’t have the funds to pay a lawyer. You have more important things to worry about. What the law provides, and what Joe and I do a lot, is a contingent fee,” Zachary explained. “That way, you can get competent legal representation for nothing out of your pocket. Not only does that promote access to the courts, it promotes accountability.”
On the importance of informing people of their rights, Denton added, “It’s one of our responsibilities as lawyers to promote confidence in the justice system, and knowledge is power. To the extent that we’re able to communicate to folks that this is not some pipe dream that’s available to the select few who are able to afford it, but that it’s available to everyone – I think it raises all ships.”
Another key aspect of ensuring continued access to justice is training the next generation of legal professionals. Both Denton and Zachary stress how important mentorship was early on in their careers.
“There are probably more people than we could name that have gone out of their way to help us,” Denton said. “Not because it would do them any good, but because it was the right thing to do.”
“Joe and I aren’t going to be practicing forever,” Zachary added. “I would hope that whether it’s in the next five, 10 or 20 years, I will have been able to pass on some of this knowledge that I’ve gained – through people helping me or mistakes I’ve made – to where there is another Joe and another Justin. That way, people in the state can keep getting quality representation after Joe and I are gone.”
Norwood’s role in the firm’s future exemplifies the “call and the mission” of being an attorney, according to Denton. “We were very fortunate for him to come on with us when he did,” he said. “I think that guy’s ceiling is basically unlimited. I expect big things from him in the next couple of decades.”
Denton added that their goal, whether through Denton & Zachary or otherwise, is to encourage other lawyers to take the same risk. The challenge he raises to other lawyers considering the jump into solo practice?
“Go back to your hometown,” he said, “set up shop where all the lawyers are retiring, and make sure there’s access to justice in your community.”
Denton and Zachary are clear that the work of bringing justice to people and communities is a collaborative one, whether that’s through education, mentorship or the teamwork that all three attorneys put in for each case. Denton’s belief – that a rising tide raises all ships – also applies to the network of lawyers across the state working in “the problem-solving business,” as Zachary puts it.
“We’re certainly not the only people who are out here doing this,” Denton noted. “There are hundreds of people practicing law in the state of Arkansas who won’t be recognized but are out there being the hero for someone. I hope the takeaway from this is that we’re just representative of a broader group of folks that are out there carrying this banner.”