Named one of the top two law firms in the country in terms of client service for the ninth-straight year, and the only firm on that list that also earned top "value for the dollar" rankings, Thompson Hine is already a big brand in legal circles, with offices in Washington, D.C. and New York.

But J. Shane Starkey, partner-in-charge of the firm's Cincinnati office, thinks one of the firm's biggest selling points is its small-town attention to relationships.

"We have offices all over the country but, at heart, we're still an Ohio firm. We still have that midwestern ethic," he says. That includes, he adds, personal relationships with clients and community service.

For Starkey, that theme is also his personal ethos. A native of Youngstown and graduate of University of Cincinnati College of Law, he ascended to the firm's top local position in April 2010.

By then, he had already been named one of Chambers USA's "Leading Lawyers" for five years straight and had many community ties from an executive committee spot with the Cincinnati May Festival to chairmanship of Learning Through Art.

The promotion, he admits, was a transition.

"I went from focusing full time on practicing law to a very dynamic position with both internal aspects "” managing attorneys and staff "” and an external component, trying to build the brand, look for client opportunities and be the face of the firm in the community," he says. "It involves a lot of skills that aren't taught in law school."

A key skill is building relationships.

"In a law firm, you can't come in and tell people what to do," he explains. "You really are a "¢first among equals,' and any initiative you want to promote cannot be done from the top down. It has to be from the ground up."

One of his first initiatives, making the rounds and talking to associates, was making sure the firm continued its "culture of service" to clients.

In 2003, the firm conducted a large client survey to see what the firm did well and where it could improve.

The result was its "Client Service Pledge," a nine-point mantra that focuses on communication and delivering on promises.

Repeated High Marks

Another result was being rated one of the two top firms in client service in an independent survey conducted by Massachusetts-based BTI Consulting Group, an honor that the firm has earned every year since.

At Thompson Hine, associates undergo quarterly training in client service and partners meet annually to brainstorm ways to improve in that area.

The continued effort, Starkey says, has become part of the firm's DNA.

"Client service is easy to say," he says. "The key is acting on it, making it a daily focus of business."

Since taking the helm of the Cincinnati office, Starkey has also expanded a commitment to community service, initiating a program that matches the firm's attorneys with nonprofit organizations throughout Cincinnati.

"The key is to match attorneys with groups they're passionate about. We don't want them to be on the board of the groups just so we can say they're there. We want them to make an impact," says Starkey.

He points to successes including ties to the Cincinnati Museum Center, Boy Scouts, Bridges for a Just Community, as well as a number of smaller organizations.

"It doesn't only benefit the community, it makes us a better law firm too.

"When companies get their employees out into the community, it benefits their business as well."