From Biglaw to Boutique

With the kids heading back to school, it’s a good time to think about how education is changing — especially for lawyers. Our profession prizes continued education, and of course mandates it for those lawyers who otherwise would be too focused on billing or finding clients to learn. Both the way lawyers learn and for some the way they teach have been completely changed by technology. It may be trite at this point, but this is really the golden age of access to information and learning opportunities for everyone, lawyers included.

While on balance the development of the technology that has created the current state of information access has been a wonderful human achievement, there are downsides. Information overload can be paralyzing, and the speed at which information can be found and deployed creates stresses for those required to keep up. But if someone wants to learn something new, they can. And more than ever, for free.

As easy as it is to learn using today’s technological resources, that same technology has changed how a lawyer can teach others just as dramatically. When I gave my first CLE less than ten years ago, it was for lawyers within my firm, in one of the conference rooms, perhaps with some lawyers from other offices “joining” by speakerphone. For many years in Biglaw, that was how CLE was given and consumed. The biggest differences between sessions was the speaker and the size of the conference room. That changed over time, as firms started subscribing to audio or even video recordings of CLE from outside providers. With that development, it became easier than ever for lawyers to “consume” their CLE, often at group lunches sponsored by the firm. “Come for the food, stay for the CLE,” or something like that. Those lunches were a good way to make a dent in CLE requirements, especially if you aimed to get to one every month or two.

As busy as Biglaw lawyers often are, it was not uncommon for my colleagues and me to encounter a “CLE scramble” as registration deadlines approached….

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Andy DeVooght

We’ve discussed in these pages the trend of going “from Biglaw to boutique” (and it was the title of Tom Wallerstein’s column for us as well). Lawyers who could easily work at mega-firms are opting instead for the flexibility and collegiality of small-firm practice — and clients are following them.

Today’s notable move involves Andy DeVooght, coming out of the U.S. Attorney’s in Chicago. DeVooght has an enviable résumé. Before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he worked as a partner at Winston & Strawn and clerked on the U.S. Supreme Court, for the late Chief Justice Rehnquist.

Instead of returning to Biglaw, a common path for someone in DeVooght’s shoes, he’s joining a buzz-generating boutique. Which one?

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Tom Wallerstein

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?

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Tom Wallerstein

Next week my firm will celebrate its fourth anniversary. I can’t believe it has been that long. It seems like yesterday that I was sitting at my desk at Quinn Emanuel, thinking about cases worth millions of dollars but still too small to be economically handled by traditional Biglaw firms. I wondered if I might try to serve a growing market hungry for less expensive but still high-quality litigation. Not long thereafter I was conspiring with my partner over the details, drafting business plans, and conducting informal marketing surveys.

As my firm approaches its fourth anniversary, it’s interesting for me to think back to my early plans and consider what worked, and what did not. What happened as I predicted or hoped, and what was unexpected…

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Tom Wallerstein

Starting a new firm is daunting. Many lawyers focus on their expenses, and are pleasantly surprised that the overhead and other necessary expenses are less than they expected. But the real difficulty arises on the other side of the ledger because accurately projecting income can be so elusive.

If you’re starting with guaranteed clients, then making projections is easier. But otherwise, you really can’t project your income unless you know the extent to which your business plan in general (and your business development plan in particular) will succeed.

Even if you can accurately project how much potential business you will have, it’s still easy to slip by overestimating your expected income…

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Tom Wallerstein

By the time I graduated from law school in 1999, I had become rather risk-averse. For example, several of my friends were excited to enter the dot.com world with hopes of becoming uber-wealthy. I eschewed those prospects for the security of a more regular, albeit more modest, Biglaw paycheck. Eighty thousand per year struck me then (and now) as a generous starting salary.

Of course, forming and managing a new law firm is a risky business proposition. But to the extent that I now am fully responsible for generating my own work, I feel like I actually have greater job security than I did when I was beholden to working for other rainmakers on their cases. So even though starting a firm was risky, it didn’t really portend a fundamental shift in my natural inclination to prefer security over risks even if that means foregoing potentially bigger gains.

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Tom Wallerstein

A law school friend told me about a deposition he defended in Waco, Texas, where the temperature reached 105 degrees. At the time, my friend Geoff was an associate at a stuffy BigLaw firm, and there was never any doubt that he was required to wear a suit. And especially because the deposition was videotaped, the witness did, too.

Plaintiffs’ counsel was the owner of a smallish firm in Florida and he showed up wearing shorts, sandals and a short-sleeved polo shirt.

When they arrived at the deposition location, Geoff and his witness were dismayed to learn that the air conditioning wasn’t working. As the day progressed, the conference room grew increasingly warm. By late morning, the witness was restless and hot and kept firing glances across the room to the dormant air conditioner. The video was priceless; every answer was punctuated by the witness sweating and mopping his forehead. Geoff told me later that he thought his witness looked like he was lying even when he wasn’t.

Learn the truth about Geoff’s deposition…

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Tom Wallerstein

I’m pleased to announce that the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. To the contrary, I survived my surprise three-week trial. It wasn’t a total surprise, of course. I had been expecting a trial, just not one that lasted more than a week.

Not that I’m complaining. Frankly, trying cases is a whole lot of fun. I’ve written before about my passion for trials and the competitive aspect of litigation generally.

That internal motivation is crucial for me. Trials usually require demanding hours, and that is the least of it. Beyond the mere number of hours spent working, I often find trying a case to be exhausting. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Whenever you’re not on center stage, say, conducting a witness examination, you are paying rapt attention, thinking and calculating and strategizing. Sustaining that over time, day after day, can be difficult. You have to give your all, and then some. And when even more is asked of you, fate will decide the rest…

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Tom Wallerstein

I try to approach new relationships without an express agenda. In my experience, business has always come from relationships indirectly, and unexpectedly. Looking back at my firm’s engagements with 20/20 hindsight, it is undeniable that positive relationships led to the work. But that was impossible to predict looking forward.

For example, lunch with a casual acquaintance became a friendship and led to a very lucrative engagement when he later developed a conflict. I could not have predicted at the time how the lunch would later lead to important business.

In fact, had I approached the lunch with a strict agenda, I never would have formed the friendship or subsequent business. Instead of meeting with the goal of developing business, I met with the goal of having a nice lunch. It is a well-known irony that sometimes it is easier to get something when you stop trying so hard…

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Tom Wallerstein

Whether you are a partner or associate, working in Biglaw or in a boutique, the key to success is developing a book of business. And the key to developing business is to focus instead on developing a book of relationships. As I wrote before, “business is an engagement, a lawsuit, a transaction; it is measured in money. A relationship is a connection with a human being. A book of business is virtually impossible for an associate to build. A book of relationships is available to first year associates and partners alike.” No matter how good a lawyer you may be, people still want to do business with people they know and like on a personal level…

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