This weekend I watched the three-part Moroccan adventure on Real Housewives of New York. Each moment was more awkward than the next as I watched the worst clichés about Americans acted out on screen. I could not imagine a more inappropriate set up other than if Bravo had sent a group of small-firm lawyers to the Middle East. Or so I thought….
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Francis Hoang and Joseph Fluet, principals of Fluet Huber + Hoang. This D.C. small firm specializes in, among other things, “legal services in non-permissive environments.”
What does this mean? Find out after the jump….
It’s explained on the firm website:
Fluet Huber + Hoang (FH+H) can operate in environments that other law firms cannot or will not. For clients with out-of-the-ordinary legal needs, we can deploy a select team of attorneys and support personnel to virtually anywhere around the world on short notice. In particular, FH+H’s Special Services Team can:
* Conduct due diligence in countries currently in a state of hostilities or civil unrest
* Assist individuals and companies in completing legal transactions in developing, unstable, or inhospitable nations, while fully complying with US laws and regulations
* Resolve legal disputes in countries where U.S. presence is minimal or non-existent
* Provide an on-the-ground legal presence in high-risk, high-threat areas, including Iraq and Afghanistan
What allows FH+H to operate in such challenging environments? A combination of factors:
Our attorneys have experience in the military Special Operations community and have participated in multiple combat deployments. Our unique combination of professional networks, high level clearances, and legal and military expertise makes FH+H the “go-to” law firm for work in this sector.
Indeed, three of the attorneys at FH+H are veterans of the war in Afghanistan. The firm has important contacts in the Middle East, and the attorneys (described as the type of people who would “win a bar fight”) are not afraid to practice law in “remote areas.”
While there are other firms that focus on this type of work, FH+H is the only small firm in this space. As Joe Fluet explained, “one way to gain a competitive advantage is to go where there is no competition or where people are scared to compete.” FH+H has done both.
Fluet and Hoang acknowledged that they have found an important niche with their work in non-permissive environments, but stressed that such work was only one area among many. When Fluet formed the firm, he ignored the advice that he got from colleagues and mentors who told him “find a niche and drive in to that niche.” Instead, Fluet formed a full-service law firm.
When Francis Hoang joined the firm in 2009 (after working in the White House), many other law firms were contracting. FH+H, on the other hand, was growing. Hoang attributes the growth to the firm’s focus on being a one-stop shop. “Our attorneys act as counselors to our clients. This means that we will provide whatever legal services are required by our clients. In addition, rather than merely responding to specific legal questions, we take the long view with our clients and focus on providing them the guidance they need to grow,” said Hoang. And, at a time when clients were very cost-sensitive, the cost-conscious attorneys at FH+H were highly desirable.
The clients must appreciate this advice because they call the attorneys at FH+H with good news, not just bad news. I found that to be more surprising than the fact that one of their of-counsels is currently on assignment in Dubai. The reason for this, according to Fluet, is that the firm does not charge for short phone calls or emails. “Clients are often afraid to call their attorneys because they equate those conversations with fees. However, it is often the case that a five minute phone call could obviate $500,000 in legal fees.”
One of the firm’s goals is to assist in the growth of their clients. “Some firms manage risk, we manage growth,” said Fluet. While lawyers are usually viewed merely a cost center for clients, FH+H works to add value. In addition to providing well-priced legal services, the attorneys at FH+H have actually had a hand in assisting their clients in growing their businesses by introducing them to other clients or contacts from their extensive professional networks. In so doing, FH+H can grow alongside their clients.
In addition to serving its clients and helping them to grow, the partnership at FH+H does what it can to make sure that the attorneys are fulfilled. The firm holds weekly staff meetings where the attorneys discuss their work and share their successes and frustrations. In addition, the firm offers weekly lunches, celebrates birthdays and firm anniversaries, and throws holiday parties. Beyond these perks, the firm works to maintain a positive work environment. There is no minimum billable requirement, and while the attorneys work hard, they are well-compensated. And the attorneys get some kick-ass travel opportunities (in addition to that dude in Dubai, there was a newly-wed associate who went to St. Kitts for a client and the firm paid for his new wife to join him).
What does the future hold for FH+H? The firm intends to grow, but to do so in a way that preserves their collegial environment. How can that be done? “By making decisions about growth that are must be based primarily on the firm’s culture and values, not strictly on economics.”
So, I raise my glass of Ramona Singer Pinot Grigio to the future of FH+H and and offer my services if you open an office in Cancun (or some other highly permissive environment near an all-inclusive resort).
When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.