As I have previously discussed, one thing I wish to accomplish with this column (in addition to the instant boost of self-esteem I receive whenever I read a comment) is to provide specific information to attorneys considering small firms. To that end, meet Ray Prather and Daniel Ebner, principals of Prather Ebner LLP.
Ray Prather was a successful solo practitioner specializing in estate and trust planning. Dan Ebner, an HLS grad and former district court clerk, was a Kirkland & Ellis associate. Realizing that their backgrounds complemented each other — that Prather had experience in running a small firm, and that Ebner had a valuable referral source in Biglaw connections — these partners in life decided to become partners in law.
So how did they make it happen?
Prather Ebner was formed in 2010 as a two-man operation that provides tax and estate planning and administration, advises closely-held businesses, and litigates matters relating to estates, trusts, wills and powers of attorney.
Prather and Ebner are both genuinely happy practicing law. I met them in person and asked them to swear on the Vault Guide, so I know this to be true. Why are they so happy? They enjoy the challenges that come with growing a business and building their brand.
What have Prather and Ebner learned about how to build and expand the brand? Do they hang out at funeral homes passing out business cards? No, but they do focus on ways to get their name out there. Prather is a prolific writer and often gives CLE presentations. Also, they have learned that relationships with other lawyers can be an important referral source. Ebner has maintained close relationships with his former colleagues at Kirkland and with his law school classmates. These relationships lead to referrals because Prather Ebner, given its size, can handle matters that do not warrant Biglaw rates (and so it does not pose a competitive threat to the large firms).
Prather and Ebner credit their success to the fact that they have found their “niche to scratch.” While estate planning is not a unique niche, there has been a shift in the industry towards smaller firms handling such matters. Indeed, fees in this area are heavily regulated by the courts, which can pose a problem for some Biglaw practices. Also, individuals are less inclined to pay Biglaw rates. Consequently, Prather Ebner is well positioned as a small, highly competent firm.
Ebner, like many ATL readers, had some pre-conceived notions about small-firm lawyers:
When you work at certain law firms or go to certain law schools, you only know Biglaw and only hear the stereotypes about small-firm lawyers. But, after practicing, I realize that there are some great benefits to working at a small firm. And, those small-firm lawyers that fit the negative stereotype only help us, as it allows us to really stand out.
Maybe Prather and Ebner have learned the key to developing a successful business, but what about maintaining a successful relationship? Is it true that couples that work together, stay together? I have seen enough reality-television couples ending in splitsville to be concerned. But Dan and Ray are no John and Kate. Says Ebner: “Working together has been great. Working time is also relationship time. So after work we can go home, do whatever we want, and ignore each other, without feeling guilty.” (I am no People’s Therapist, so I do not know if the silent treatment is good for a relationship.)
Surely relationship time means working in PJs? No. Prather Ebner maintains an office with a strict business dress code. Does relationship time at least mean party time? Again no. So far, Prather Ebner has not had any holiday parties. This self-proclaimed “pop and pop” shop is hardcore.
Prather and Ebner offer the following advice to attorneys considering opening their own practice:
RP: Don’t undervalue yourself. Determine rates that are appropriate and remember that it is better to discount services after the work is performed than start too low. Also, small firms have the ability to be creative about fees. Consider a combination of contingency fees, flat-fees and hourly rates.
DE: Don’t strictly control costs relating to marketing and technology. Money intelligently spent will come back and allow for faster growth.
Also, get as much free advice from friends and family before starting your own firm, suggests Prather. Indeed, they spent several months speaking to friends and family who were solo practitioners, IT people, PR people, and small-business owners.
When Prather and Ebner were starting out, they received a piece of bad advice: if your name is on the door, people just show up. But after focusing on developing strong relationships with other attorneys and estate planners and making strategic business decisions, the people are starting to show up.
To learn more about Prather Ebner LLP, visit their website.
If you work at a great small law firm and would like to be profiled, please email me. Also, if you work at a terrible small law firm and would like to share your information (don’t worry, I will set you up with a cool pseudonym like “Valerie Katz,” and protect the identity of your firm), email me.