GPSOLO October - November 2008
Practicing with Family
My general practice began in Jonesboro, Georgia, lo these many years ago. The firm was two brothers and me. One brother was obviously older and more dominant. I got an early taste of sibling rivalry in this setting as the brothers routinely disagreed, with the older brother usually prevailing. Partially because of these rifts, I left to start my own firm.
As is usually the case when beginning a small-town practice, I handled all sorts of cases—criminal, domestic, damage suits, railroad representation, and residential real estate closings (this was a much simpler time). Did I ever tell you about my client who shot his brother in self-defense 31 times? Got him off, too—to the state mental hospital. I was a young, hotshot lawyer with a great deal of confidence.
When I started here, we had four children ranging in age from one to nine. That nine-year-old always wanted to be a lawyer. Sure enough, Charles Driebe Jr. graduated from the University of Georgia Law School in 1982. He then began practice with a fairly large insurance defense firm in downtown Atlanta.
He later asked me if he could come and practice with my small firm. This is great, I thought. But I reminded him, in a typical burst of fatherly bluster, that, while he thought he knew everything, I actually did know everything, and he better listen to me. Thus began my second chapter of family practice. The firm’s practice had gotten somewhat more sophisticated as my clients matured. We were still handling everything from complex real estate transactions to zonings and civil and criminal cases. I thought my son would eventually take over my clients and practice. But Charles seemed to prefer the criminal practice and related matters. In fact, he once got a $500,000 judgment against a child molester in a civil case.
After about ten years of this sort of practice, Charles seemed to become increasingly restless and casual about his cases. We had a conference (maybe more of a confrontation). It seems that while Charles was in undergraduate school at Tulane University in New Orleans, he became interested in music. He was a program director and disc jockey at the university radio station. He confessed that he was more interested in entertainment law than our general practice. His statement to me was, “I always loved music, spent my free time and money on music, and I want to combine my passion with my profession.”
I encouraged him to pursue his dream of an entertainment practice. He did that over the years with our firm’s support. Flash forward ten years: Charles is the attorney for (and manager of) the Blind Boys of Alabama, Charlie Musselwhite, and a whole string of other musicians whose names escape me. He also runs his management company, Blind Ambition, out of our law firm offices. His legal work almost totally consists of entertainment-related work. Although our firm still practices as Driebe & Driebe, I basically know nothing of entertainment law, and he knows nothing about my kind of practice. Thus, in the twilight of my career, I find that my son will not take over my practice, much to my regret.
These family practice experiences could apply to all sorts of combinations: husband and wife, father/mother and son/daughter, brothers, sisters, and other endless variations. One constant is that there is always one older or more experience lawyer who usually wants to call the shots. If you are thinking of practicing with family members, it is important to discuss goals and decision making in advance to promote understanding and avoid future dissention. Below are some additional considerations:
- Candidly evaluate the ability of both parties to co-exist with each other. This is like a marriage, you know.
- Try to lay out ground rules for the relationship in advance, before or during the honeymoon period.
- Discuss the practice goals of each party. Never assume that lawyer family members share your goals.
- Don’t forget that the family relationship may negatively impact the other lawyers in the firm (see my first firm above), usually by the sense that the relative is favored.
- Be especially cautious in entering practice with lawyers who are related to each other—but not to you.
- Keep your antenna up to detect what the lawyer family member really wants to do.
- If you discover a disconnect, encourage the lawyer family member to pursue it.
- Encourage your lawyer family members to follow their dreams.
Would I recommend practicing with a family member? That depends. Carefully consider the points above before you jump into anything. And good luck whatever you decide.
Chuck Driebe has a general practice in Jonesboro, Georgia, and is editor-in-chief of SOLO newsletter. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.