GPSOLO January/February 2008
This Way Out: Taking the Leap into a Partnership
One situation I haven’t covered in my five years writing this column is that of the solo lawyer who has decided to make the move to a partnership. As a lawyer who actually made this transition, I’ve wondered myself why I hadn’t dedicated a column to this topic. I suppose I thought that somehow it wouldn’t be loyal to my solo readers to write about ending one’s status as a sole practitioner, but lawyers make this move all the time, so I figured it was worth writing about.
What are the benefits of giving up your solo status to join up with other lawyers? What are the drawbacks? Can you still skip out for an afternoon of golf when you have partners?
Being a member of a law partnership will give you coverage when you are out of the office, whether for a business trip or vacation. You can actually relax when lying on the beach, knowing that your partners are back at the office handling everything that might arise. Well, everything except what they still call you about. But at least your law partners are there to handle the details.
With partners, you can walk down the hall to discuss a legal matter. If, as a solo, you have your office in a law suite, you can come close to this same experience with friendly neighbors. Even if you are not in a law suite, you can pick up the phone and call a friend. But when the people you are getting advice from are your law partners, they have your interest at heart more than the people in those other situations. And only to your partner can you say, “Well, if you know so much about it, you do it!”
Lawyers in a firm generally charge more than a solo attorney. Why? Because they can. Because clients walking into a law firm made up of several lawyers generally expect to be charged more than a solo would charge, assuming that there will be greater resources and services.
You can profit from the sweat of others. Having partners makes it much easier to hire an associate attorney. You are not the only one that has to supply the associate with work. If one month your business is a bit slow, your partner might have a matter on which the associate can work. The associate works for a fixed salary, and you collect at their hourly billing rate. Do the math and you’ll see why this is so attractive.
You refer out matters less often. Unless you’ve opened up a boutique specialty practice with your partners, odds are good that your partners will have some skills that you do not possess. I’m a business transactional lawyer and my partners are litigators. I used to have to refer out all of my litigation; now I just walk down the hall. Keeping a client is easier if your firm does all of their work, and you have greater control over the matter as well.
You’re more likely to get business from large companies. A large company will more often require more support and be more concerned about continuity. What if you are out for an illness or are otherwise unavailable? Are you the only person with whom the client can speak?
Keep in mind that although you can’t have some of these benefits without a partnership, you can have others. It is possible to charge higher fees as a solo attorney, and I’ve known many solo attorneys, including myself, who represented large companies. These things just take more effort as a solo.
The Bad and the Ugly
I bet by now you’ve gotten pretty annoyed at the way I seemed to be bashing solo practice. I wasn’t, but now you get to have fun reading about all the problems that come with having partners.
There are more administrative duties. With a law partnership comes support staff and all of the attendant obligations. There are questions of pay and pay raises. Issues arise when one employee doesn’t get along with another. There’s payroll, time spent for hiring new people when someone quits (and someone always does), and then there are the hours it will take you to figure out how you can afford to provide health insurance for your employees. As a solo attorney, you have only yourself to manage. No squabbles between employees, unless it is with your invisible friend.
Say goodbye to unilateral decisions. Many decisions that you made in a second as a solo attorney now require consultation with your law partners. Questions of whether you should accept certain clients and how to bill in unique situations will often require your partners’ input. It’s not entirely your own show anymore, and you should be sure that you are okay with this. Some people, such as me, welcome this change. Others do not.
There’s a greater chance of a conflict of interest knocking out potential clients. This may or may not be a significant problem depending on the size of the city or town in which you practice. It hasn’t been a problem for me in my practice, but New York City is a big town and thus there is less likely to be a conflict. Not so in a small town with a limited client base.
Increases in liability. Form a law partnership and your odds of being involved in a malpractice lawsuit have just gone up, although you made a good decision selecting your partner or partners (right?), so the odds won’t go up too much. Laws may vary from state to state as to whether or not you would have any personal liability for the malpractice of your partner, but in the event of a malpractice claim against your partner, your law firm still would be involved, which would affect you. I think that the best advice here is to do your best to stay away from partnering with lawyers whose fields of law have a high rate of malpractice lawsuits.
Partners: Is It Like Being Married?
Yup, it’s like being married—without the benefits. So, before you decide to partner up with one or more lawyers, be sure that you are “madly in love,” because some degree of post-partnership letdown will inevitably follow. And when the letdown hits, it’s always better to go from being “madly in love” to “in love” instead of from “lukewarm” to “hostile.”
There will have to be some tolerance for each partner’s particular style and habits, but there are limits. For instance, if one partner likes to take long lunches and the other tends to work right through it, each should learn to be respectful of the other’s choices, provided that the one who takes long lunches still gets all of his or her work done.
However, if one partner is sloppy in the preparation of invoices, leaving typos and cryptic abbreviations that even Germany’s World War II Enigma Machine couldn’t decipher, then that lawyer will have to learn to clean up his or her act and more carefully scrutinize invoices.
Words of Wisdom
Many years ago I visited a solo attorney who must have been well into his 70s. He was still practicing law and had a setup with a large ornate desk and an elderly secretary who looked like she had been with him for about 50 years. When the conversation came around to why he never took on a partner, he said the following: “My father wasn’t an educated man, but he had wisdom. And the one ship he told me that I should never get on is the partnership!”So what’s your decision—stick to the one-man shop, or all aboard?
David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. In his spare time he blogs at staringatstrangers.com. You may write to him at email@example.com.