Attorney Harry Skefos leads major economic development practice at Martin Tate
Link to Article from Memphis Business Journal: https://www.bizjournals.com
By Greg Akers - Editor-in-Chief, Memphis Business Journal
Sep 6, 2022
Since 2016, Memphis Business Journal has honored the area’s many fine legal professionals — attorneys and associates in private practice, in-house counsel, judges, and advocates of all kinds — through the Best of the Bar awards program. The 2022 class was chosen by an MBJ editorial board. These profiles have been edited for clarity and length.
Harry J. Skefos
Director and VP, Martin, Tate, Morrow & Marston
Law school: George Washington University
Areas of practice: Economic development/incentive programs; tax; business transactions; trusts and estates
Under Harry Skefos’ leadership, Martin Tate has presented more than 160 incentive applications before Industrial Development Boards, including the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) for Memphis & Shelby County, and the State of Tennessee. All told, those clients represent projects that created 26,000 new jobs and $3 billion in capital investment.
Professional activities: For many years served as pro bono general counsel for the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church; advised Greater Memphis Chamber and business targets on economic development incentives and state and local taxes.
Civic/volunteer engagement: Member, Kiwanis Club of Memphis
Why did you decide to pursue a career in law? The law forms the glue that holds together our free society and enables our country to address, in a civil fashion, our ever-changing needs and challenges. It also provides the foundation that has allowed our nation to employ a capitalist economic model to achieve economic gains, while still providing a check on that model to address various externalities, including environmental concerns and workers’ rights. Economic security underpins every important aspect of our lives. I enjoy advocating for the “little guy” — and when you go up against the government, as I often do, even a large company is the “little guy.” I gravitated to economic development to represent companies interested in locating and/or growing their businesses in our community.
What was an important moment from your career that made you the legal professional you are today? In 1979, John D. Martin Jr., hired me to work with him, handling tax issues for several of the firm's clients. I spent the next four years spending most of my time working with him in his large corner office, learning how to practice law — an unusual opportunity and privilege that I am sure I did not fully appreciate at the time.
Although I started working in the area of federal corporate tax, it was not long before I was tasked with issues involving oil and gas tax and state and local tax — just about the only two areas of tax law I had not studied in law school.
The Greater Memphis Chamber asked me to be a resource for them on a pro bono basis to address issues of state and local tax. Early on, I was credited with “saving” a major project the chamber had been trying to reel in. The local PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) programs provided important economic development tools. Accordingly, we built an economic development practice at the firm focused on securing incentives available to companies seeking to locate and expand in our community.
What are the most important skill sets or talents someone must possess to be successful in law? In addition to all the usual skills and talents an attorney must obtain and develop, one should learn to approach each matter presented by first gaining a complete understanding of all of the pertinent facts, and then thoroughly researching all of the applicable law: rules, regulations, statutes, and case law. In other words, be completely prepared; don't stop short when you think you have just found a favorable answer. Don't seek only helpful authority for your position, but also that authority that may be used to defeat your position. And then, if you are fortunate enough to be working in a firm where you can test out your position with a colleague before moving forward with it, do that, selecting a colleague to critique your position who would be the best suited to find fault with your position.
What career advice would you give to someone considering the legal field? As the decision to practice law begins to take form, it would be useful to consider the many areas in which lawyers work; broadly speaking, these include trial work, business transactions, property transactions, tax, and trusts and estates. But within these categories are many sub-categories to be explored. Spend some time considering how a law license could be used to help you pursue your interest in those areas to which you would like to devote your time and talent.
Eventually, if you do obtain a law degree, you will want to gain some experience in all of the aforementioned general areas — at least enough experience to understand when your client needs the assistance of another lawyer, someone more experienced than you in the area of the practice involved in his/her case. Ultimately, you will want to focus on the one or two areas of the law you enjoy practicing in the most and become expert in those fields.
What do people who aren’t legal professionals most commonly get wrong or misunderstand the most about law? The law does not always provide a "right off the bat" answer to your client's problem. Most of those "open and shut" cases get handled before lawyers are brought in. Most often, the law simply provides a process — sometimes a very long and expensive process — by which the parties, in a civil way, can reach a fair and proper result in their specific matter. In trial matters, often, if not most of the time, this results in a settlement before any trial-imposed outcome or result of an appeal is obtained.
In addition, clients also often mistake civil and professional conduct between opposing attorneys as a failure on the part of their attorney to represent their interests zealously to the exclusion of all other interests.