Boutique Law Firms

Cleary Gottlieb switched over from “summer casual” to all-year business casual between my summer and starting full-time, so I never experienced a mandatory business attire office. Some senior folks would kvetch about the falling standard of decorum, but I suspected those guys were really just annoyed that they’d built a truly impressive suit collection and sat idly by as their wife started letting the tailor needle her, and for what? Younger lawyers rejoiced because not having to blow out a suit collection amounted to a functional bonus. I never experienced the full-on business dress policy, but personally, I could never imagine wearing business attire every day if for no other reason than business attire isn’t really conducive to the 18-hour workday.

More than a decade into the business casual movement, there are still holdouts demanding a return to the formality of the good old days. The problem with all these irritated partners is it’s not really possible to preach business attire without looking like a tool….

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Christina Gagnier

Ed. note: Please welcome Christina Gagnier, who will be covering small law firm practice. You can read her full bio at the end of this post.

Branding is often something overlooked by law firms, especially small ones. It has been fairly standard to go the “Smith, Smith and Jones LLP” route, but sometimes that type of branding alone might not work for your small firm. If you are just starting out and trying to differentiate yourself, you may have to get creative, and a bit cheeky, to get some attention.

When we launched our firm, my partner and I went down that traditional branding route and decided to go by Gagnier Margossian LLP. This completely makes sense, and there is a good reason why most firms do it, but let’s be real, it’s an ethnic mouthful. We have French and Armenian surnames and created a hard to pronounce mash-up.

Thankfully, a few years in, one of our clerks just started calling us “GAMA,” and it stuck. GAMALAW, GAMA, and GAMALLP are much easier to convey in a conversation than Gagnier Margossian.

Beyond naming, we had to think about the look of the firm. As a creative, creating a color palette and design guide for the firm was important, so we did a survey of what was already out there. We chose our colors since the combination stuck out, and there were many creative things we could do. Even after making these decisions, getting up our current website (launched in 2011) and working on making our brand distinct, we still did not feel that it was necessarily “us.”

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One of the questions I have been asked since leaving Biglaw is how I decided to join forces with my current partners. It is a good question, because over the years I have had the opportunity to work with many lawyers, both at my firm and at others. I have technically even had hundreds of “partners” between my two prior Biglaw firms. But other than my current partners, I can think of only a handful whom I would have considered opening a firm with.

My professional ambition was never to open a boutique. I very much enjoyed my time in Biglaw, and always thought that I would stay in Biglaw for the remainder of my career. Did that mean that I expected to remain at the same firm for my entire career? Of course not, no matter how appealing that idea sounded. The fraying of the Biglaw social contract as a result of the 2008 recession sealed that deal. But it was a big leap from knowing that my career could involve some moves within Biglaw to leaving Biglaw altogether.

Finding the right compatriots was a critical element of that decision. How did it come about?

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Nicki Minaj

* Being a former partner of a firm that’s flopped ain’t easy. Ex-Howrey partners find themselves haunted by the failed firm’s “phantom” funds, and now they’re going to court to fight their tax liabilities. [Am Law Daily]

* Silly Cadwalader! You’re not the “oldest law firm in the United States.” Neither are you, Howard, Kohn, Sprague & FitzGerald. That title goes to Rawle & Henderson, a firm that’s been around since 1783. [ABA Journal]

* If you’d like to work at a firm that’s being touted for its anti-Biglaw culture, you might want to take a look at Tandem Legal Group. You won’t ever have to wear a tie at this “fun” and “cool” place. [Washington Post]

* Jason Bohn, the Florida Law grad accused of murder — who also happens to be the guy who was once featured in an NYT article about the perils of law school — has apparently killed before. [New York Post]

* Nicki Minaj is being sued for $30 million by the man who once served as her “wig guru.” Having absolutely nothing to do with the case, imagine being so obscenely rich that you could employ a “wig guru.” [CNN]

Christina Gagnier

Ed. note: Please welcome Christina Gagnier, who will be covering small law firm practice. You can read her full bio at the end of this post.

When you are starting out, or even eight years in to running your own firm, you want clients. You need people coming through the door, physically or virtually, who are willing to pay for your legal services.

As much as you want to take all of the clients that you can get, you have to look out for the red flags — those potential clients who are going to be more trouble than they are worth or may lead you down a rabbit hole. Two stories highlight different types of potential client red flags…

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Stephanie Adams: this Playmate knows the law.

* We’re not sure that the best way to convince the Supreme Court to allow television broadcast coverage of its proceedings is to air commercials on news channels. Even SCOTUS justices fast forward during the commercials. [Legal Times]

* Old farts just wanna have fun: Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens told reporters about a wild night out with the late Justice William Brennan that involved Ginger Rogers and pants that were too big. [National Law Journal]

* When “the only way to be successful [as a first-year associate] is to go into the role expecting to be treated poorly,” it’s no wonder that Biglaw firms continue to fail their women lawyers. [Washington Post]

* Just because you work at a small, boutique, or mid-size firm, it doesn’t mean your bonus bounty will be less than that of your Biglaw brethren. You could actually earn much, much more. [New York Law Journal]

* Yes, you can be fired for being “too cute.” No, it’s not gender discrimination. Sorry, beauties, but being a hottie isn’t protected a characteristic under Title VII, says this Playboy Playmate. [Corporate Counsel]

In last week’s column, I discussed the importance of external communication during the mediation process in securing a favorable result for a client. Many of the people who wrote to me as a result of last week’s column agreed with my general premise that mediation is an important skill for the contemporary litigator, and that mediation’s importance will only continue to grow.

A primary driver of that growth will be the continued desire of clients to reduce litigation costs. More and more, clients are recognizing the value of mediation as a means of resolving disputes early and with certainty. Accordingly, those same clients are looking to their outside counsel to guide them through the mediation process, and it is safe to assume that how outside counsel fares at that task could be a crucial factor in terms of a client’s willingness to send that lawyer more business….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Beyond Biglaw: Mediation Matters (Part 2)”

Christina Gagnier

Ed. note: Please welcome Christina Gagnier, who will be covering small law firm practice. You can read her full bio at the end of this post.

My foray into writing this column for Above the Law is appropriately timed with a running Evernote scribble of speculative episodes that my partner and I have been sketching out about our lives managing a small law firm. Running a boutique tech law firm in San Francisco led by two women with a bunch of under 35-somethings is fodder for a half-hour “dramedy.”

Hopefully, through some storytelling, this column can provide inspiration, and perhaps to some, caution, about running a boutique/small law firm. Some of the things that happen to us are a little too unbelievable to be true, but I assure you, they happened and continue to make us laugh (or cry).

A little backstory. My partner and I met at law school and quickly came to the realization that we needed to get back to work, or the entire experience of simply reading a lot of old material and regurgitating it back on exams would quickly claim our souls. So, as is the San Francisco entrepreneurial way, we started our law firm, then solely a public affairs consulting firm, by incorporating in the back of our Evidence class.

The starting operating budget? $87 from an AT&T account deposit refund. We scurried to the nearest Bank of America and began to live the American dream of being lawyers in a big city. I guess it was the American dream if the American dream consists of crashing on office floors, sleeping in airports, and working out of Starbucks. It was 2008, and we thought to ourselves, in the midst of the greatest economic upheaval since the Great Depression, that we would simply walk out of law school and start a law firm. Well, we are still here…

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Mediation. For some lawyers, it is a great way to spend a day; for others, it is an interminable bore, and ineffective to boot. It is easy to imagine that lawyers who have had successful mediation experiences are more likely to fall into the former category than the latter. What is more certain, however, is that mediation skills are increasingly important for a litigator to have, for a number of reasons. Unfortunately, most lawyers, especially Biglaw attorneys, are left to fend for themselves when it comes to developing those skills. That is a shame, as the importance of being able to mediate successfully has only grown in today’s business climate. More generally, negotiation skills remain under-taught in law schools and by law firms, and as a result are underdeveloped in many lawyers.

Any chance a lawyer has to develop their mediation skills should be seized. As an intellectual property litigator, all of my cases originate in federal district courts, and throughout the country, almost every case schedule includes mediation (or some other form of alternative dispute resolution) as a distinct event. Where on the schedule the mediation occurs, and whether it is held before a magistrate judge or local certified mediator, is usually up for negotiation between the parties. What is important is that mandated mediation is on the schedule. As a result, just as litigators need to know how to handle a discovery motion in a particular court, so should they be prepared to make the most out of whatever mediation process their case calls for. Interestingly, mediation has become an important part of appeals as well, including at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a familiar forum for patent litigators like myself….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Beyond Biglaw: Mediation Matters (Part 1)”

Some large law firms, when announcing year-end associate bonuses, also announce base salaries for the new year. In Biglaw, the salary scale hasn’t budged since January 2007, when Simpson Thacher announced the $160K scale (providing for base salaries ranging from $160,000 for first-year associates to $280,000 for eighth-year associates).

You could view this as a compensation cut, since we have had some inflation (even if not high inflation) since 2007. According to the inflation calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $160,000 in 2013, the latest year available, had the same buying power as $142,407 in 2007. Of course, law school tuition has climbed quite a bit since 2007 — so even for the lucky souls who land Biglaw jobs, the value proposition of a law degree isn’t as appealing today as it was back in 2007. You’re paying more for a degree that gets you less.

What’s the solution? Work for a firm that will pay you more than $160,000 as a starting salary, of course! Let’s say hello to the newest member of the $160K-Plus Club….

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