Last week, I was having a business lunch at Michael Chiarello’s Coqueta overlooking the San Francisco Bay. (Those who know me won’t be surprised that I managed to combine a business meeting with some good eats. I’ll save my restaurant review for another time, or you can read it on OpenTable.)
Anyway, my lunch was with a partner at Leason Ellis, a thriving IP boutique in New York. The firm is a boutique in that the lawyers are specialists in intellectual property; as far as I know, that is their only practice area. But within that subject matter, they have both a litigation and transactional practice. Conversely, with limited exceptions, my own firm has remained a litigation-only boutique since it was founded four years ago. We handle a wide range of subject matters, but only do litigation within those subjects.
What are the pros and cons of running a litigation-only shop? Why haven’t we added a robust transactional practice as well?
For as far back as I can remember, the arrival of a new year has been an occasion for me to reflect on my life, where it has gone, and where it appears to be going. Many times I would spend New Year’s Eve simply being grateful; more recently, it has been an occasion to try to see a little furthur [sic].
This year, for the second consecutive year, our firm was approached by an Am Law 100 firm to explore the potential of our being acquired or otherwise merging. These overtures are flattering. They also intensify my annual ritual of considering my path and the choices I have made.
I have written before about some of the differences between Biglaw and small. My perception of those differences, however, has changed quite a bit in the nearly four years since I left Biglaw to help start a boutique firm. Our firm also has changed so much from one year to the next that my calculus of the pros and cons of Biglaw also has changed….
Yeah, some people thought I might be nuts for leaving litigation powerhouse Quinn Emanuel. But the prospects of starting my own firm and building a practice from the ground up were too compelling to ignore. Nearly two and a half years have passed since Colt Wallerstein LLP opened its doors, and still not a day goes by when my partner and I aren’t humbled by our good fortune and our decision to “trade places”: that is, move from Biglaw to start a litigation boutique in Silicon Valley that focuses on high-tech trade secret, employment, and complex-commercial litigation.
I graduated from law school in 1999, and the legal market was very different then. Getting into a “top” law school pretty much guaranteed a job, and most of my law school friends and I had multiple offers and no real concern about landing a Biglaw job, if that’s what we wanted. Offer rates hovered around 100%, and of course the lucrative summers consisted mostly of long lunches at five-star restaurants, luxury box seats at baseball games, open bars, and very little work.
You see partners spinning off from bigger firms to start their own shops all the time. We’ve covered some of these high-profile partners that are still taking the risk during the recession, like the Skadden partners who formed BuckleySandler, or the Boies, Schiller partners who formed Stone & Magnanini.
But starting your own firm isn’t the exclusive domain of partners. Associates start their own shops all the time, even in this market. Last week, we learned that two Quinn Emanuel associates were taking the plunge and forming their own firm, Colt Wallerstein LLP:
Colt Wallerstein is founded by Doug Colt and Tom Wallerstein, two former Quinn Emanuel attorneys. Claude Stern, the managing partner of Quinn’s Silicon Valley office, said of the pair: “For years, I have worked closely with both Doug and Tom. I have trusted them with my clients’ most sensitive information and they have excelled in managing complex, sophisticated, and difficult commercial litigation. Doug and Tom are terrific, client-focused lawyers with a keen sense of the practical.”
These two attorneys weren’t laid off from Quinn. They say they were on partnership track at a firm where profits per partner march ever upwards. So you have to ask, “Why the hell would you leave a stable, well-paying job in the middle of a recession? Do you also enjoy looking gift horses in the mouth?”
After the jump, Wallerstein answers some of our questions.
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