Duval & Stachenfeld

Bruce Stachenfeld

“Low overhead is great!” That is one of our sayings. We recite it all the time — yes, even out loud at meetings — as it is a powerful competitive advantage for a law firm. It seems pretty obvious, but if so, why doesn’t everyone get with this concept?

There is a term informally used to describe how overhead impacts a law firm called “Implied Overhead.” The “Implied Overhead” of a law firm is the cost of everything except the lawyers divided by the number of lawyers. So if you have 50 lawyers and the cost of “everything” except the lawyers is $10,000,000, then you have implied overhead of $200,000 per lawyer.

Our Implied Overhead for last year was about $165,000. Anecdotally I believe that Implied Overhead for major law firms averages about $300,000. (I admit I don’t really have this data for sure; it is just what I have heard.) If your firm has 100 lawyers and implied overhead of $200,000 and the average for major law firms is $300,000, then you have a $100,000 per lawyer competitive advantage over your major law firm competition. Multiply that by 100 lawyers and you just made $10,000,000! And this flows right to the bottom line! If there are, say, 30 partners at this firm, then each partner just got a check for $333,333!

Yikes — did I do that math right? Was that $333,333 per partner merely by reducing the implied overhead?  I just double checked and $10,000,000 divided by 30 partners does indeed equal $333,333. That’s a sizable number, so maybe you should read the rest of my article….

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Bruce Stachenfeld

I guess at heart I am a competitor. I want my law firm to be the absolute top law firm in the world – at least in our niche of being The Pure Play in Real Estate Law.

I would like us to be loved by clients — loved by lawyers — incredibly profitable — the greatest law firm that ever hit the legal world. And to do this I need to crush my competition — right?

Or maybe not right. Let’s think about this a bit and see what happens….

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Bruce Stachenfeld

Of all the regrets I have in life, one of my greatest is that I never had the chance to meet Peter Drucker before he died.

Drucker is one of my intellectual heroes. He was able to look at the same world that everyone else was looking at but see things that others couldn’t see. He literally invented a science. And like all science, it is around you from the start but you just can’t see it till someone shows you the way.

The science he invented was the science of “management.” Before Drucker, people just ran things and sometimes good things happened and sometimes bad things — no one really delved too deeply into the “why” of it all. But then along came Drucker, who made order out of chaos and realized that there were principles that, if followed, would increase the likelihood a business would be successful.

All those leadership books you sometimes read, all those “how to” books you sometimes read, all of that thinking evolved from his groundbreaking analysis into the science of “management.” Drucker’s books are utter masterpieces. Indeed, there was an epiphany for me on every single page of his amazing book Management (affiliate link). I think I learned more about how to run my law firm successfully from Drucker than from any other source.

Here are two thoughts from Drucker that hit me like a bolt of lightning when I read them. Honestly, my business — and even my whole life — was never the same again.

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Bruce Stachenfeld

I give credit for the inspiration of this article to a writer named Seth Godin who wrote a book called The Purple Cow (affiliate link). My law firm benefited hugely from this book.

The theory of the Purple Cow in a nutshell is that you should try to STAND OUT like a purple cow would stand out from the other mere brown cows. If you don’t STAND OUT, then you just blend in, and you are nothing at all.

Okay, so that is a good point – as if you didn’t know that already. But it is not that simple. And here is why. Our instincts and everything we learn every day – our emotions, our colleagues, and our loved ones – all lead us in the safe (and wrong) direction.

And the reason for this is very simple:

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Bruce Stachenfeld

In my article of two weeks ago, I threw out the proposition that if you are running a law firm — or a department or practice group in a law firm — the critical mission is to “attract, train, retain and inspire talent.” If you can do this, you are probably going to accomplish great things — and the converse. So the question now is, how do you do it?

Below is the best I have been able to come up with. It is (mostly) from a speech I gave at an IMN conference in 2011. (You can read the original speech here.)

First — and foremost — Talent wants to be with other talented people. They crave it in their souls. They will put up with major “not nice people” and even poor working conditions, if they are convinced that other very talented people are doing it with them in the trenches. Consider Apple and Steve Jobs. He wasn’t thought of as a nice guy; indeed, quite the opposite. But when people looked around the room, they were awed at the skill sets of those in the room with them, and boy did they want to stay in that room, in the worst way. So they put up with Jobs’s not–niceness. (Of course, I do not advocate being this way as a boss — far from it.)

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Bruce Stachenfeld

Ed. note: Please welcome our new columnist, Bruce Stachenfeld of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP.

What is a law firm? Unlike a lot of businesses, there are really no assets except the lawyers and (in some instances) the brand name. For most law firms — especially newer firms and start-ups — there is no brand name; that leaves the lawyers as the only assets. And for brand-name law firms, if the talent starts to leave, eventually the brand dies.

As one of my partners once said to me: “Bruce, all of the assets of this business go down the elevator every night. Your job is to get them to come back up in the morning.” He just said it casually, but it hit me strongly later on as I realized he was completely right. The entire point of running a law firm was to keep the lawyers in the firm. You can always get more clients if you lose them, but without the lawyers, you have nothing to sell and it is game over.

Accordingly, to answer the question posed at the outset as to what a law firm is…. it is a collection of lawyers who are together because they wish to be together. If they don’t wish to be together any more, then they leave, and that is the end.

And what is a great law firm?

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Bruce Stachenfeld

Ed. note: Please welcome our newest columnist, Bruce Stachenfeld of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP.

By way of introduction, I am the founder and managing partner of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP. We are a 70-ish lawyer law firm in midtown NYC that focuses strongly on real estate; indeed, we refer to ourselves as “The Pure Play in Real Estate Law.”

As managing partner I have spearheaded numerous unique initiatives that have distinguished us from other law firms. Many of these ideas were very scary when we tried them out — there was always a fear that we would not only fail but, worse yet, be laughed at. Some of these ideas did not work out so well, I admit; however, the ones that succeeded have been the fulcrum to attract both lawyers and clients to our firm and indeed been the bedrock of our success.

As a relatively small firm playing with the big boys and girls, one would think that our size could be a disadvantage. But that would be incorrect. Smaller players can be flexible and move in different directions. We can take risks and seize opportunities that large law firms cannot logically capitalize on….

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* The $160K-Plus Club welcomes its newest member: Duval & Stachenfeld, a real estate firm in NY, is more than doubling its starting salary for associates to $175K. Look for them recruiting at your “tier one” school soon. [New York Law Journal]

* In this economy, bankruptcy firms are being hit hard: Stutman Treister & Glatt, a top L.A. firm that once assisted in cases against Lehman Brothers and Enron Corp. in their Chapter 11 proceedings, is closing up shop. [WSJ Law Blog (sub. req.)]

* It ain’t easy being dean at the law school with the best Biglaw prospects — oh wait, yes it is. Congrats to Gillian Lester, who will serve as Columbia Law’s fifteenth dean come January 2015. [Columbia News]

* “Do I think he thought he was gonna beat it? Yeah.” The district attorney who brought charges against Stephen McDaniel thinks the law school killer was too big for his chainmail britches. [Macon Telegraph]

* From catcalling to “jiggle tests,” NFL cheerleaders have to put up with a lot of really ridiculous stuff. Not being paid the minimum wage is one thing, but having to put up with being groped is quite another. [TIME]

There’s good news, and there’s bad news. Or maybe good news with a catch, as we mentioned in Morning Docket.

The good news: Greenberg Traurig is hiring. The catch: the positions don’t pay $160,000 a year (or even $145,000, the new starting salary in GT’s Miami and Fort Lauderdale offices).

Following the lead of Kilpatrick Stockton, Orrick, and other Biglaw firms, Greenberg Traurig has created some new non-partnership-track attorney positions. They pay less than traditional partnership-track — or, in GT parlance, shareholder-track — positions, but the billable-hour requirements are lower and the training is better.

What do these positions look like? Let’s find out….

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Cadwalader Wickersham Taft new logo CWT AboveTheLaw blog.jpgIn case you missed the big news, last week Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft laid off 96 lawyers. This is, as far as we know, the largest lawyer layoff of the current economic cycle.

When combined with the January layoffs, which hit around 35 lawyers, CWT has axed upwards of 130 attorneys. This makes it “America’s firingest law firm.” (We can’t claim credit for that turn of phrase, which was coined by a tipster, but we will try to popularize it through frequent usage.)

As we reported earlier this week, résumés from Cadwalader refugees are flooding the market. But will they find a welcome reception?

Maybe not. Here’s an email that a boutique law firm in New York sent to a legal recruiter who tried to submit CWT résumés for an opening:

CORRECTION: Actually, the email was sent to the recruiter UNSOLICITED, not in response to anything. It was apparently sent, out of the blue, to a group of legal recruiters.

Sent: Tuesday, August 05, 2008
To: [Legal Recruiter]
Subject: FW: Resumes

Good Afternoon,

Thank you for staying in touch with our firm. Please note that we are not going to be accepting resumes for Cadwalader candidates.

Thank you,
[Recruiting Contact]
Duval & Stachenfeld | 300 East 42nd Street New York NY 10017

Ouch. Are Cadwalader lawyers now the Untouchables of the law-firm caste system?

Note that this slap in the face comes from Duval & Stachenfeld LLP, which is far from snobby in its hiring practices. It draws heavily from non-top-tier law schools and pays $60,000 starting salaries to its associates.

(It should be noted, however, that the Duval firm is more elitist when it comes to its lateral hiring. As discussed here, for entry-level hiring, the firm looks well beyond the top-tier law schools. But for midlevel and senior associates, it tends to poach from the Skaddens and Lathams of the world — and pay accordingly.)

P.S. For a more upbeat take on Cadwalader, see Ashby Jones’s Legal Beat column in the Wall Street Journal (via the WSJ Law Blog).

UPDATE / CLARIFICATION: We have received a letter from Bruce Stachenfeld, founding partner of Duval & Stachenfeld, clarifying the situation. An excerpt:

When I (the managing partner of D&S) heard about the CWT layoff news my immediate reaction was that I felt very bad for my friends at CWT. It is a great firm suffering from some market turmoil and all of us running law firms know that adverse market forces can happen to any of us.

My other reaction was that since we are hiring junior lawyers a possible win/win/win would be for us to talk to CWT directly about whether we could hire some of their adversely affected people. This would permit us to find some super-star-high-quality associates – would permit CWT to help its people locate new jobs – and would permit some of the adversely affected associates to get new jobs promptly.

So I did the logical thing and contacted one of my friends at CWT to discuss this. After my discussion I sent a letter to be sent to some of the associates who had the requisite background to fit into our real estate group. It remains to be seen if we will end up hiring CWT associates. My hope is yes.

Since resumes had started to come in (through legal recruiters) I instructed our recruitment coordinator to inform legal recruiters that I would not be accepting resumes through legal recruiters due to our close relationship with CWT. I thought it appropriate to let the legal recruiters know this promptly to avoid misunderstandings with them about recruitment fees.

You can read the full letter after the jump.

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