Boutique Law Firms

The week before Labor Day is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Has been for a long time. Even during my decade-plus in Biglaw, a fact that may be shocking to those who believe that the Biglaw experience ranges from the tolerable to the miserable — and never enjoyable. But even for those who feel trapped in the ravenous clutches of the insatiable Biglaw billable hours beast, the end of August almost always offers a welcome, if brief, respite. Because late August is prime Biglaw vacation season, and offices nationwide are running on a skeleton staff.

Partners, and even some associates, are trying to squeeze in some family time before the start of school. The younger set is off for a final round of beach weekends, or just enjoying lazy days in the office, relishing the chance to kick out at a normal hour. With time to hit the gym, before a meal in a real restaurant, rather than a Seamless-delivered dinner in a takeout tray. During my Biglaw years, the end of August meant the last few days of commuting down to the Jersey Shore by ferry from Manhattan, with twilight views of the Statue of Liberty and the Verrazano Bridge. Moments of serenity, even in a city of perpetual motion.

The end of summer can be wonderful, and the temptation to milk the most relaxation out of the waning days of the season great. But it would be a mistake to view this period as only one of enjoyment….

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Bruce Stachenfeld

There – I always wanted to write an article that had such a strange title that people would look at it and wonder what I was talking about. So here goes….

Everyone just loves to beat up on the big law firms. I keep reading articles everywhere that say:

They are overpriced.

They are inefficient.

Their partnerships destroy innovation.

They are terrible places to work – sweatshops – associates are worked to death until they quit.

Their business model is broken.

There was even a book that came out a year or so ago with a great title, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (affiliate link). To me the book described the law business as part of a dying profession that is enmeshed in a conspiracy to ruin the lives of all in it — except the fat-cat senior partners at the top of the pyramid. I admit I read it a while ago and it is a bit hazy in my mind, but the author, a former Kirkland & Ellis partner, clearly is not a fan of the current state of Biglaw….

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Last week’s column discussed the underappreciated role that second chairs play in modern litigation practice. But how best to fill the role, once it is earned?

The easy answer is fanatical preparation. Meaning you will need to prepare for every hearing, no matter how minor, as if you were going to be handling the argument yourself. Or if you are at trial, and supporting another lawyer on the testimony (be it direct or cross) of a witness, preparing as if you were conducting the examination. Apply the “laryngitis test” if you need motivation, as in what would you do if the first chair woke up that morning without a voice? Knowing that you could be thrust into the spotlight on short notice should be motivation enough for thorough preparation.

But you also need to put that preparation to good use. Arguing in open court is difficult, for even the most seasoned advocates. If you are being asked to sit at counsel table, the idea is not for you to admire the wood paneling in the courtroom. The expectation is that you will put your knowledge of the case to work, by anticipating the flow of the argument, and making sure that whoever is arguing has any needed information readily available for immediate use. When your partner is speaking, that means keeping track of whether they will need to refer to a document along the way. Or whether they have forgotten to raise an important point. For that latter reason, working out a non-intrusive note passing system in advance can be worthwhile. The key is not to disturb the flow of the argument, but to enhance its effectiveness. If you have nothing to contribute, you should not be sitting there wasting the client’s money. The need to be “active” does not give license to hijack the hearing or cause distraction, of course. Engaged listening at all times and sparing active participation are the better approach in almost all cases.

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There are certain legal skills of critical importance that receive the same level of attention as a mid-summer pilot for a sitcom not expected to make it to the fall slate. In fact, there is usually a disconnect, particularly in Biglaw, between what is “taught” and what lawyers really need to learn as they develop. A recent anniversary of sorts reminded me of an example. Let’s discuss the notably unglamorous, but often critically important, role of “second chair” at a hearing or trial.

For the uninitiated, the typical hierarchy on a litigation matter for lawyers is support (faceless associate research drones), team member (associate or higher who is “on the case” but may not even get to sit at counsel table), second chair (trusty lieutenant, perhaps content in the role, or perhaps gunning for more), and first chair (field marshal winning the war and the peace on behalf of a grateful if lighter-pocketed client.)

August is the anniversary of my first patent trial, well over a decade ago….

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It used to be that the world of corporate transactions was the sole province of Biglaw. After all, handling complex matters like mergers and acquisitions required manpower and overhead — and lots of it. Well-paid junior associates were an integral part of the process, and the costs of doing business were driven by corporate clients’ expectations of grandiose reception areas and white-glove treatment as proof of both commitment and excellence.

These days, however, technology has leveled the playing field, making it possible for boutique law firms to compete with Biglaw in ways never before possible. Many of these boutique firms, comprised of Biglaw lawyers seeking to practice law on their own terms, have sprung up in the wake of large-firm mergers and dissolutions. Creative thinking and the innovative use of technology have been the keys to their success, allowing these boutiques to reduce overhead costs and run their practices more effectively and efficiently, saving their clients time and money.

Don’t believe me? Well, look no further than Bailey Duquette, a Manhattan-based boutique law firm….

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Let’s start with a definition. Merriam-Webster defines “autonomy” as “the state of existing or acting separately from others.” Meaning you have the proverbial “control over your own destiny,” or put another way, are not dependent on others. In many respects, complete autonomy is a fiction for a lawyer. We are all dependent — on our clients, our partners, our firms. But lawyers still value autonomy. It may be elusive, particularly in Biglaw, but it is an important contributor to career satisfaction and performance.

In fact, earning a significant degree of autonomy was among the leading factors in making my Biglaw experience a positive one. Yes, I said earned, rather than “being granted” or “given.” In Biglaw, you need to carve out personal space for yourself. It is not something that is given. Nor does anyone tell you what you need to do to earn your measure of independence. At a very high level, it is necessary to project both confidence and competence — to your clients, peers, and superiors, at all times. If you are successful, and earn some autonomy, there is a higher likelihood that you will be happy in your Biglaw job. Imagine that.

Perhaps surprisingly, your Biglaw firm actually wants you to have a degree of autonomy….

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Whether you practice in Biglaw or a boutique, knowing how to email is a critical skill. In fact, the quality of a lawyer’s emails is an excellent indicator of that lawyer’s future career prospects (excepting those lawyers fortunate to be born with a guaranteed multimillion-dollar book of business through family connections). This should not be a surprise, considering how email is the single most used form of communication for lawyers. Yes, technology has liberated us from a full day’s work (with the help of a secretary) in order to prepare what would now be considered a routine client communication in the form of a fancy letter. But the need for a similar level of care in preparing today’s written communications has not changed. Show me an associate’s emails, and I (along with other former or current Biglaw partners) will have a very respectable success rate in guessing whether or not the associate is partnership material, even in the absence of other information about the author.

I have sent many thousands of emails in my legal career. I do not know how many of them would have been considered “good” emails, but I’d like to think that most of them were. I was fortunate, since I worked for a partner who stressed to me early on the importance of sending “good” emails.

What is a “good” email?

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Juan Monteverde and Alexandra Marchuk

Marchuk v. Faruqi & Faruqi, the high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Alexandra Marchuk against her former firm and one of its most prominent partners, Juan Monteverde, rolls on. Back in January, we covered some of the salacious revelations contained in the summary judgment papers.

You know what would be even more juicy? A trial.

And that’s what we might be getting, in the wake of two blows just dealt to the defendants in this matter….

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Rengan Rajaratnam and Dan Gitner

It’s bad luck to get a haircut during trial.

Daniel Gitner of Lankler Siffert & Wohl, commenting on one of the personal grooming superstitions he forces those staffing cases with him to adopt. Gitner recently broke U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s winning streak in the successful prosecution of insider trading cases when his client, Rengan Rajaratnam, was acquitted. Gitner cut his hair after the trial concluded.

If you need it, build it. We needed help. And we saw an opportunity. So we took action, and now have another business as a result. I’ll explain. The need was simple. Because of our work with investors interested in understanding how patent litigation events impact on their investments, we found ourselves needing to monitor many active patent cases, in addition to the cases we were litigating ourselves. At one point, we considered hiring an intern to help with this specific task, at least during the trading day. But we quickly realized that solving this problem required a software-based solution. So we set out to build one. We looked for something available that would do the job, and failed to find anything useful.

Thanks in no small measure to the talent of our programmer, what we built worked. We were able to get automated alerts of new docket entries and opinions directly to our email. And we could do so for multiple cases, alleviating the concern that we would miss an important opinion. Because our clients tend to have sizable investments, there is a premium placed on our ability to let them know of litigation events quickly and to interpret those events for them, so that they could protect their positions or initiate new ones, based on the recently released publicly available information. As a fail-safe, we began having the alerts sent directly to subscribers of our consulting services. And now we have decided to offer it publicly (www.litigationalpha.com) to fellow lawyers, retail investors, and whoever else can benefit from automated alerts generated based off District Courts docket entries and opinions….

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