Volume 20, Number 5 July/August 2003
HOW TO "PARTNER" WITH OTHER LAWYERS
By Joseph A. DeWoskin
After almost nine years on active duty with the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps, I found myself at a crossroads in my legal career. Opting to take a road not often traveled by the friends I had made in the military, I decided to leave active military service and work at a law firm, enjoying all the feelings of job safety and financial protection that come with a big firm.
Of course I flooded the local area with résumés, targeting all types of firms. I interviewed with some, was offered employment by some, and then, as I was mulling over what to do, a friend of mine presented me with an interesting opportunity: "Come and open your own practice in our office. If you're willing and able to take a chance, it will be the best opportunity to practice law you could ever have."
The best opportunity I could ever have? I had to find out more. "Well," my friend said, "it's an office-share situation. We're all partners, but not in the traditional sense of the word. We're solo practitioners who run our own practices-a few have an associate-but we have the comfort and security of other attorneys to share expenses, discuss cases, and refer cases outside our practice areas."
The primary question for me was whether I could afford to take this chance and open my own law practice. Looking back, the question really should have been how could I not afford such an autonomous yet supportive opportunity. My biggest problem at first was explaining to people how I am a solo practitioner but work at a law firm, although the concept of sharing my office with other attorneys is pretty simple to grasp. Being a "partner" by office sharing is a combination of the best of being a solo and being in a law firm. A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine decided to open his own law practice as a solo; within a year he decided the sense of isolation was not worth the advantage of being on his own. He also struggled to find new clients and to cover the various areas of law his cases encompassed. He missed human contact and mentoring.
Before entering an office-sharing relationship, review the groundwork so you're certain about what you're getting into.
Structure. How is the business legally structured? Are the attorneys separate entities (Law Office of Joseph A. DeWoskin, Law Office of John Smith), or do they present themselves as a firm (DeWoskin, Smith & Jones, A Partnership Including Professional Corporations). This affects legal liability and potential ethical issues and determines what should be covered in the lease agreement. At my office we are separate but present ourselves to the public as a firm. (For a discussion of the liability and ethical issues created by this arrangement, see the article "Ethics Concerns in Shared Office Space," page 40.)
Written agreement. This may be made with either the primary "partner" or with the other attorneys in the suite. (Covering everything about the agreement could result in an entire article; here we'll concentrate on general items to cover in the setup agreement. Also, be sure to verify that the agreement does not violate state ethical rules.)
One of the most essential facts to cover is what is included in rent/overhead: a receptionist who answers a central phone line and greets clients, local and long-distance telephone service, fax machine, basic office supplies (pens, paper, letterhead, file folders, Post-its, postage), Internet access, online legal research, legal malpractice insurance, and so on. These items can be tailored to meet the needs of your specific group.
Issues that arise in a "true partnership"-about profit sharing, for example-are not a factor in office sharing; there is no profit sharing with attorneys who do not participate in your case. If you do enter into a traditional partnership, the agreement must make very clear who is responsible for making decisions and addressing other issues that may arise.
My agreement provides a receptionist, firm letterhead, office supplies, a copy machine, a fax, and metered postage for my use.
Attorneys in my office concentrate on different areas of the law, with only some overlap, which allows us to "partner" with one another on cases we otherwise might not take, or to learn a new area of law with a more experienced mentor/attorney. "Partnering" also provides both formal and informal opportunities to brainstorm with the other attorneys in the office. And, unlike the reality in large firms, a less experienced attorney can easily find a mentor to answer questions as they arise.
Being your own boss allows you a type of flexibility that a structured law firm environment does not provide. You can set your own hours. You can choose the cases you want to take. Most of all, you are responsible only to yourself-and your clients-for your actions and decisions.
Your "partners" also have an interest in your success, which reflects on their prosperity, ensures that the "partnership" remains in effect, and guarantees no empty offices and a constant stream of clients coming through the doors. Finding clients when partnering with other attorneys is easier than trying to obtain clients on your own; you have a ready-made referral network, and cold calls to the office will be referred as well.
Another benefit is fee splitting with other attorneys. If your "partnership" is like mine and presents itself as a law firm, you don't need to address ethical concerns about fee-splitting arrangements when other attorneys work on a case. (Nevertheless, check your state's ethical rules to confirm you're not in violation.)
Potential Trouble Spots
Although I'm a major advocate of the benefits of office-share arrangements, every silver lining has a cloud, and anticipating potential difficulties is a good idea. Here are a few of the more common quagmires:
-Too many attorneys practicing in the same area of law can affect the inherent referral potential of office sharing.
-Lawyers have an ethical duty to inform clients who is part of the law firm and who will be working on the client's case. In an office-sharing partnership, clients also must be informed that the attorneys in the office are not part of your practice and will have no knowledge of their case. As extra insurance, my client agreement clearly states that I am responsible for the client's case, that I "office share" with the law firm, and that I am authorized to retain additional counsel.
-Client conflicts, although addressed by individual state ethical rules, may arise for lawyers who "partner" in an office share. A thorough, workable conflict system must be implemented to protect all parties. Review your state ethics rules and other guidelines that address this issue.
-A system to address potential legal malpractice claims and bar complaints should be in place. Discuss this issue with your malpractice insurer for guidance on how to structure these concerns.
-Additional possible hot spots-such as whether or not you may sue a client to recover fees-should be resolved as they come up if not covered in the original agreement.
The biggest area of potential conflict-in a category all its own-is cash flow and meeting monthly overhead, and how these are affected by keeping and retaining clients. It is up to you to make sure you can meet your overhead and that you take enough cases to remain in a positive cash flow. Developing a good business plan, plugging into referral networks (bar associations, local military installation referral lists and other referral lists), and "partnering" with other attorneys in an office-share will go a long way to ensure that you have a successful practice. "Partnering" through an office-share is like a marriage: Issues need to be addressed as they arise to ensure a successful long-term relationship.
Joseph A. DeWoskin practices law in Kansas City, Missouri (he is licensed in both Missouri and Kansas). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.