It was a long week for Jerry Harmison Jr.
After a three-month application process – including an Aug. 28 interview in Jefferson City with Gov. Eric Greitens – Harmison waited for the call confirming whether he was the new 31st Judicial Circuit associate circuit court judge. Finally, he received that call Sept. 1.
“Eleven-thirty Friday morning, I received a phone call that I was selected,” Harmison said with a relieved sigh.
Harmison was one of 16 interviewed beginning July 6 and among three nominees recommended to Greitens. As the successor to retiring Judge Dan Imhof, Harmison’s swearing-in is slated Sept. 29. Greitens selected Harmison over two other finalists: Todd Myers, chief assistant prosecuting attorney for Greene County, and Todd Thornhill, chief judge of the Springfield municipal division.
Now Harmison is transferring his ownership stake in Harmison & Pearman PC, the firm he co-founded in 2003, and moving from the private practice to the public bench.
When a new judge is appointed, firm partners also have decisions to make.
For Harmison’s firm, the transition triggered a merger with McAnany, Van Cleave and Phillips PC. Harmison & Pearman partner Greg Pearman said the deal has a targeted closing date of Nov. 1. He declined to disclose the terms of the acquisition.
“MVP represents employers and insurers in workers’ compensation cases, which is the type of work that we do,” Pearman said. “We have many mutual clients and the primary reason for the merger would be to better serve those clients and to provide added value.”
Based in Kansas City, MVP operates a Springfield office, 4650 S. National Ave., among its nine offices throughout Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa and Arkansas. Founded in 1901 by E.S. McAnany and Maurice Alden, the firm practices in workers’ compensation, real estate, banking and financing, business and corporate, litigation and not-for-profit law, according to its website.
Pearman said his seven-employee firm will take on MVP’s name and combine to operate in a single office, but officials haven’t yet decided which location – either MVP at 4650 S. National Ave. or Harmison & Pearman at 4730 S. National Ave.
When Harmison began considering the seat, he said he had a deep discussion with his wife, followed by another with his law partners.
“It was not foreign for me to put my name out there,” he says, referring to running for Springfield Public Schools Board of Education. “But, I would not have moved forward without the support of my law partners and family.”
Harmison has company in moving to the public bench from private practice.
Christian County Circuit Judge Jennifer Growcock said she also received full support from Polsinelli PC when she presented her judicial intentions, and that support was vital to her decision.
“I received unequivocal support from my firm and the rest is history,” she said in an email to Springfield Business Journal. “For me, it was not about leaving the practice or firm because I didn’t love both. I simply wanted to pursue another dream and the timing was right.”
Growcock was elected in mid-2016 to a new county position to join Presiding Circuit Judge Laura Johnson. This is one instance in which an attorney may find the opportunity to become a judge, with appointment being another. Whatever the reason, acquiring the position depends largely on timing, Harmison said.
And, in his case, the process requires a lot of paperwork.
“It is intensive in that you answer all these questions and share information with decision makers, you reach out to friends to write letters of support. And the whole time participating in the process for more than three months, you don’t know if it’s effective or not,” Harmison said.
Transitioning out of a firm is no cakewalk. However, the process depends on the type of firm and time allowance between the appointment and the first day on the job.
Greene County Circuit Judge Jason Brown came from Lathrop Gage LLP in late 2004, and his first day on the bench was Jan. 1, 2005. Coming from a large firm, Brown said transferring cases was a smooth process, although he only had two weeks to do it.
“Self-practice would be the hardest and someone from a small firm, like Jerry, would be the next hardest,” Brown said. “I was from a larger firm, and that made things easier, although there was more to be done in a short period of time to make the transition.”
Greene County Associate Circuit Judge Douglas Hosmer was appointed in 2014 and retained in 2016, formerly practicing at Hosmer King & Royce LLC in Springfield. At the time, he also was serving as a court guardian ad litem, cases he said were easily reassigned.
Growcock said fellow Polsinelli attorneys were up to speed on her cases, allowing them to easily step in, so no clients were lost in the process.
“I transitioned clients and matters to other lawyers within my firm after I discussed the transition with each client,” she said. “I was able to see some matters to conclusion and the rest I left in very capable hands within my firm. My goal was for my firm to keep my clients’ business.”
Learning to be a judge is like learning to drive, according to Harmison: You see your parents drive, and don’t think much of it. But once you get behind the wheel, everything changes.
Harmison will take on about 93 cases on his first day, with assistance from Judge Mark Powell, who Harmison said has been a mentor. Harmison said he first will preside over criminal cases, with the possibility of shifting dockets in the future between associate judges to evenly assign criminal and civil caseloads.
“I’ve been in private practice for 30 years,” Harmison said. “I’m familiar with the fact that to have a successful business you have to have a business plan, measurable goals and a team.
“It’s my intent to take that business model and bring it to the public sector to do everything I can to make the judiciary as efficient as possible.”
Meanwhile, a side business between Pearman and Harmison appears to be continuing as usual.
Together they run Float Trip Pickles LLC, along with Harmison’s daughter, Jessica, and Harmison said his role in the pickle production company will not change after taking the bench.
Harmison said he is excited for the new role helping the community – in addition to his multiple volunteer efforts, including as president of Care to Learn and Sunrise Rotary Club.
“I don’t sleep much,” he said with a laugh.
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