Boutique Law Firms, Partner Issues, Small Law Firms, Sports

Beyond Biglaw: Tiki-Taka Teamwork

Germany has won the World Cup. The final game was a low-scoring 1-0, but nonetheless a thrilling hair-puller of missed opportunities on both sides. The single goal, in minute 113, was an elegant, technically perfect two-touch volley — all the more impressive because it was delivered by a 22-year-old substitute who did not join the game until the second half.

The game was also a contrast of different playing styles. Argentina built its offence around a star striker, Lionel Messi, who was expected to execute a well-timed stroke of veritable futbol magic that would hopefully usher his country to its third World Cup victory. Backing him was a deep-sitting defense that repeatedly stifled German goal-scoring attempts, but was nevertheless not expected to score absent some Messi magic. By contrast, Germany lacked a superstar of the world-renown of Messi. Instead, its playing style prioritized short, deft, technical passing among the team as a whole. The victorious Germans carefully worked the ball through various mid-field channels until, eventually, it reached the back of the opponent’s net.

I am not an avid soccer fan, but like many Americans, I tune into the World Cup every four years. Who was I rooting for?

I was not rooting for Germany or Argentina, and I am really in no position to judge whether Argentina or Germany is a better team, or more deserving of the title. But watching this year’s World Cup, I recalled having the same impression as I had back in 2010. The teams built around feeding the ball to the superstar do not always win. In fact, the two most recent victors at the World Cup lacked a superstar of the caliber of Argentina’s Messi, Portugal’s Ronaldo, Netherlands’ Robben or Brazil’s Neymar. On the contrary, in 2010, Spain’s tiki-taka playing style allowed them to claim World Cup victory without a stand-out star singly carrying the burden. And in this year’s Cup, Germany’s passing-focused strategy helped them execute in each successive game until reaching ultimate victory in Sunday’s final. In each case, they proved that smart, team-focused passing can overcome the futbol “magic” lent by a superstar.

In contrast, the success of Biglaw firms, or at least Biglaw practice groups, is increasingly built around one partner’s superstar brand name. A lot of the workload, at least in litigation, is structured around setting up that star to execute at the hearing, the trial, the expert deposition and so forth. Associates spend hours writing briefs, outlines and memos all so that the superstar partner can argue the motion in court, take the deposition, or explain the issue to the client. There are good reasons for this. Clients pay premium prices for the brand-name star, and they want to see that star perform. Brand-name stars also have only so much time, and to sell the most of that time at a premium, the stars should be doing what they do best as much as possible.

Smaller boutiques often lack the benefit of a superstar, but not necessarily always to their detriment. We started our patent-litigation boutique law firm with three attorneys of roughly the same age. In a profession where early fifties is considered “not that old,” we’re fairly young. That means we are not yet in a position to sell the brand-name of any one of us individually. Instead, we’re selling the team. And we’ve run the firm that way. We have too much work, and not enough time, for one person to write a memo that prepares another person to use in court. We follow a simple workflow policy: if you’ve studied the issue, then you stand up in court, you communicate it to the client, or you haggle over it with opposing counsel. To date, we have each stepped into all of those roles. We are each leading cases and managing client relationships, and we are also each supporting cases and clients. In this way, we pass the ball around with an emphasis on keeping each matter moving, without getting bogged down in seniority or fixed roles.

What have we learned? For the tiki-taka strategy to work at a litigation boutique, you need to have a good team. That means that each person has, for the most part, the requisite skills to step into a variety of roles. Running your own patent-litigation boutique essentially requires five skills: speaking, writing, technical analysis, schmoozing, and IT. We do not operate a zone offense or defense, where there is a designated partner for each of these respective roles (with the possible exception of IT). Instead, if you are passed the ball, the expectation is that you will run with it. When Andre Schurrle placed a gorgeous ball in front of Argentina’s goal in minute 113 of Sunday’s game, Mario Gotze — despite being a 22-year-old substitute and one of Germany’s junior members — was expected to take that ball and deliver. Which he did.

Having a passing-focused strategy also means each person on the team really knows each other, how they think, what the firm values, whose strengths would be best for a given project. And there needs to be trust that if someone runs with a particular approach, they should be given the space to allow it to develop. We accomplish all this by staying in close contact on all cases. We vet all material decisions through each other. We put up no barriers inhibiting anyone from getting exposure to any particular client. We each have a bird’s-eye view of all cases, and we frequently reflect on how an issue in one case might impact a decision we need to make in another case. All together, the strategy sharpens individual skills, but also benefits the whole as often as possible.

Like soccer teams around the world, a superstar at Biglaw can make or break a firm. There are numerous instances where the departure of a powerhouse litigator quickly changed the ranking of a previously top-tier department. That model makes sense at the scale of most big law firms for a lot of reasons. As a small boutique, however, we’ve learned that the brand name we are building is the team, and our success is dependent on how well our team performs.

Growing up in Biglaw, my mentors often regaled me with tales of earlier days, when working in a law firm meant working among a community of lawyers who knew you well and whom you knew for a long time as well. Today, with the increasing frequency of lateraling among firms, that model is in decline. And though it had drawbacks, it is missed by a sizable portion of the bar. Starting our own litigation boutique has given us the opportunity to possibly recreate that environment, as much by design as by necessity. The rewards are already being reaped — by our firm, ourselves, and most importantly, our clients.

Earlier: Which World Cup Team Is Your Law School?


Zachary Silbersher is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters. Zach can be reached at zsilbersher@kskiplaw.com. His partner Gaston Kroub, the usual author of this column, can be reached at gkroub@kskiplaw.com or contacted through Twitter: @gkroub.

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