Boutique Law Firms

Christina Gagnier

It would stand to reason that by virtue of graduating law school and passing a state’s bar, you would be able to start a law firm. You might print business cards, get some office space, tell your friends, and the clients would just start coming in.

It would certainly be nice if it worked that way, but it does not. Cultivating clients and client relationships is important, and the time needed to make this happen is a full-time gig in and of itself. While on a panel this past weekend at the Catapult Conference in San Francisco, several solo and small firm attorneys chimed in on what it takes to get clients when you are just starting out…

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Albert Togut: man with a plan (of reorganization).

Maybe the floundering firm of Patton Boggs can actually right itself. It doesn’t have the Biglaw mark of Cain, namely, a name that lends itself to bad puns — e.g., Dewey and “do we,” Howrey and “how are we,” and Thelen (rhymes with “feelin'”). In hindsight, Patton Boggs did the right thing when it dropped George Blow’s name from the marquee and went from “Patton Boggs & Blow” — a name we would have had a field day with — to simply “Patton Boggs.”

(Yes, Patton Boggs has some pun potential. But there are only so many “bogs down” and swamp-related plays on words to be had. Yes, even for us.)

Luckily, for the time being we can use some “Dewey” puns. Because Patton Boggs, for whatever reason, is using all of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s old advisers….

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You learn a lot of lessons practicing in Biglaw. A big one is that you can never be prepared enough. There is always another opinion of your presiding judge to read, or a brief drafted by your opponent in an earlier case to review. Anyone who makes it more than a few years in Biglaw learns that lesson. But as much as preparation is valued, and pursued with fervor as an ideal onto itself, there is absolutely no way for even the most idealistic Biglaw recruit to fully appreciate what they are getting themselves into.

As many know, law school itself has little to teach about the realities of Biglaw, other than to idealize it as a fantasy land of big paychecks and “interesting work.” And everyone’s Biglaw experience is so unique that anecdotal tidbits are of limited utility. Does the professor, who so proudly includes on his resume a two year stint as a M&A associate at a white-shoe firm two decades ago, have much actionable advice to give a graduating 3L headed for a first-year post at even that same firm? Not really, except to perhaps suggest that the best type of relationship with that firm is one where it is your former employer….

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To paraphrase Saiontz and Kirk, if you have a gun, you have a lawyer.

And not just any lawyer, mind you, but former Virginia Attorney General and 2013 Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Cuccinelli and three colleagues opened a small firm, named Virginia Self-Defense Law (VSDL). The firm launched with a bang, triggering pot shots heard round the blogosphere. As Joe Patrice explained earlier today, VSDL targets gun-toting Virginia residents with legal retainer plans, starting at $8.33/month, that promise representation for self-defense or law enforcement harassment situations that arise out of the use of firearms.

For those unfamiliar with Virginia politics, Cuccinelli’s controversial political views have given his critics plenty of ammunition. But politics aside, does Cuccinelli’s retainer plan hit the mark as a sustainable or ethical business model? Let’s scope it out….

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Were you concerned that Virginia’s former crusader Attorney General would have nothing to do in his forced retirement from public life? Well, Ken Cuccinelli may no longer have the power to waste taxpayer dollars to intimidate scientists researching global warming or crack down on oral sex, but he’s found a way to stay in our hearts by announcing a new publicity stunt serious law practice in Virginia.

He’s ready to collect your hard-earned dollars in return for providing you peace of mind in case you were scared that someday you’d haul off and assassinate a kid walking home through the “wrong” neighborhood and need to spend a small fortune on attorneys….

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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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