Alan Nolley Jr. – Flynn Restaurant Group
A self-described competitive-to-a-fault sort, Alan Nolley Jr. relished his 13 years of litigating for three Bay Area firms.
“I viewed it as a chess game even though I never was good at chess,” he says. “But legal chess, I loved it—the thinking on my feet and quick analysis of all angles.”
And what interesting cases he litigated and often won, one of them being a hotel franchisor that Nolley cleared of responsibility when a guest falsely alleged improper touching by a masseuse. Another time, he cleared a client in a wrongful death case involving an electric motorcycle.
Nowadays, however, Nolley measures his effectiveness by how often he can prevent his sole client—whom also is his employer—from winding up in court.
“Seeing litigation from the back end as I did all those years, I got a pretty good idea on how to develop policies and procedures on the front end to avoid being sued,” he says. “My whole career has prepared me to work backward from verdict to the initial claim being made.”
That said, Nolley still can have his hands full as senior litigation counsel for Flynn Restaurant Group in San Francisco. There being six brands under this umbrella—Applebee’s, Taco Bell, Panera, Arby’s, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s—and 73,000 employees at nearly 2,600 restaurants from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, sheer numbers ensure there’s always something contentious for Nolley to manage or mitigate.
It might be something as simple as a claim that a customer fell in a parking lot or an employee contesting a dismissal. Or a more complex issue arising from a contractual arrangement. Or the liability Flynn might have for a delivery driver being in an accident.
But there’ll always be something, and if not for Flynn’s proactivity, there might likely be much more.
Flynn maintains a support center in Cleveland but despite the distance, Nolley often finds himself collaborating with colleagues across departments on how to mitigate risk. Leaning into its “own it!” philosophy, one such strategy that Nolley supports is equipping restaurant managers and supervisors on how to support the investigation of claims that could lead to litigation.
That employee issues arise, Nolley explains, is not a surprise for a company with restaurants in 44 states. How indispensable he says it is for the person in charge to document allegations and witness statements.
Another issue he’s mulling is how to support the delivery driver business that Flynn Restaurant Group acquired when it added pizza delivery to its roster. When he joined the company in April 2021, it was finalizing a deal to acquire more than 900 Pizza Huts from NPC International, which had filed for Chapter 11.
While most of the acquisition had been done before Nolley joined Flynn, he has taken a lead role in crafting litigation strategy for claims arising from driver accidents. The COVID-19 pandemic put sit-down dining on hold, so Pizza Hut was delivering many pies, which had Nolley leveraging his background in trucking litigation to contribute to safe driving policies and protocols, as well as how to respond to claims when they started rolling in post-acquisition.
Now, as the restaurant industry evolves, pizza delivery companies are exploring more efficient, technology-driven delivery through partnerships with third parties or even the use of autonomous vehicles. The latter may seem like something out of a sci-fi novel, but Nolley sees San Francisco as an appropriate testing ground, what with the city recently giving permits for two autonomous vehicle companies. No industry, he reminds, can be stagnant, and Flynn has been anything but that in his two years-plus on the job.
“Probably the most fun and fulfilling years I’ve ever experienced,” he says.
There’s so much to do here, and Nolley’s responsibilities beyond litigation include reviewing contracts, nondisclosure agreements and anticipating what growth might mean for Flynn’s risk profile. Having recently closed a deal to acquire Pizza Hut Australia, Nolley looks forward to how his team can do more as Flynn looks for other brands to acquire, some possibly in other industries.
“We’re successful in all our brands and leveraging the capital to pay for renovations and development,” he says. “Our commitment to building and maintaining assets makes us an attractive partner for our franchisors. Our aggressive litigation strategy, supported by our operators, makes us an unattractive target for plaintiffs.”
Litigation still arises, however, and while the geographic breadth of the company means that Nolley needs to partner with outside counsel, he and the two lawyers on his team handle from inception through trial, any case in California where Flynn has fewer franchises and no Taco Bell, Arby’s or Pizza Hut.
“I’ve got the best of both worlds,” he says. “I still get to litigate, but don’t do it all the time.”
Much of the time goes to thinking holistically about risk and strategy, which provides some of the foundation for the general corporate counseling he and his team also provide to their clients.
When he was exclusively litigating—at Wood, Smith, Henning & Berman; Lewis Brisbois; and Severson & Werson—Nolley recalls racking up as many as 2,400 annual billable hours. In-house law is more fulfilling, he says, as he weighs in on projects early and shares office space with Greg Flynn, who founded the company in 1999 as owner of eight Applebee’s restaurants in Washington state.
Nolley’s also on a pioneering and inclusive legal staff and happens to be the only man among nine women attorneys. Everyone’s treated equally, he says, and encouraged to do something pro bono each year. Most recently, while partnering with the San Francisco affiliate of Davis Wright Tremaine, Nolley helped several individuals expunge eligible crimes from their records.
A 2008 University of Oregon School of Law graduate, Nolley has immersed himself in other progressive causes, including an ongoing stretch since 2009 as research scholar at Howard University’s Institute of Intellectual Property and Social Justice. Some very creative people of modest means have been cheated, he explains, and this institute seeks to ensure equal access to IP protection.
Nolley says education and social responsibility were emphasized throughout his upbringing with the example set by his father, an engineering technician, and his mother, a life sciences researcher. His sister became a middle school counselor and his brother a physical education teacher.
“We’ve got six degrees among us,” Nolley proudly says.
Now a married 40-year-old father of a little girl, the formal part of his education is behind him but, as Nolley reminds, a lawyer’s learning never stops. There’s much he says he’s learned since going in-house, including how he prefers it to private practice.
“At the firms I could feel siloed and with 50 clients who wanted me for just one reason: to defend,” he says. “I had no role to advise on policies and procedures and have it now. That’s what I love about this job.”
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