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Partners are for Dancing

A student at Solo Practice University has been sharing stories with me of her partnership experiences and why she knows she will be leaving her firm (even in this economy) and is working towards this goal very soon. Her story is probably more common than most realize.

She is an equity partner in a five person law firm in a well-heeled town in Connecticut. She has been the partner in this firm for more than 9 years. She is also the youngest partner and does very well in her two chosen practice areas, divorce and bankruptcy. She made partner because she is really good, actually exceptional, at rainmaking and handling her clients’ needs. These two skill sets are so critical. As is still typical, her partners are old school, having built their law firm model to include extraordinary overhead, support-staff heavy, and associates relatively overpaid to the point they are disinterested in learning rainmaking activities themselves. They are just very comfortable, clinging to their paychecks and she is also just one voice. This typical partnership expects the younger partners to start buying out the older partners in a few years while pushing the associates up through the partnership track. Yes, this ‘traditional’ model still exists out there.

In 2011 she alone brought in $400,000 more in billables than any other partner. She only took home an extra $106,000 for all her efforts. Then in 2012, believing she may be called up for the reserves and have to go overseas, she wanted to spend more time with her family and as a result, took fewer cases. Yet her partners relied upon her to do all the heavy lifting. When she didn't start lifting they responded typically by not realizing they had an obligation to up their game as well and said, 'wassup'? They just depended upon her for their income and got fat and lazy.

This was when the proverbial light bulb went off. She realized if she can generate this type of revenue and is just giving it away because the others aren't pulling their weight, why should she be in a partnership? So, she is breaking free.

If her partners weren't so antiquated in their thinking, still clinging to the billable hours model, high overhead, low-tech and high personnel, they would be more profitable. But their behaviors aren't going to change. She recognizes she needs to be out from under this way of thinking. This thinking is also the mindset of a solo — “If I'm going to work this hard, I'm going to do it for myself.”

I bring this up now because as more and more Big Law lawyers and grads are being forced to go solo (I get at least one e-mail a day sharing a story of a lawyer being laid off and frantic about what to do) they are also going to make decisions based upon fear. And fear drives them to form unhealthy partnerships without understanding what partnerships really are.

So, I am going to resurrect an older post for ALPS as it is timeless.

To Partner or Not To Partner - That Is The Question.

I remember reading years ago about a marriage prenuptial agreement that was so specific as to each spouse’s responsibilities (right down to the husband’s obligation to put the toothpaste cap back on the toothpaste tube) that most people thought it was a prenup on steroids. The spouses, however, clearly loved it because it laid out all the expectations each had of the other so neither one was in the dark about their responsibilities in the marriage.

Well, partnerships are like marriages. Half will last a lifetime, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts; growing together, getting stronger through adversity and filled with compromise. The other half will end up in a bitter and nasty separation and dissolution, fighting over assets and the custody of the children (read "clients"). Therefore, the burning question that’s always asked and must be answered is, "to partner or not to partner?"

Like marriage, partnering should be for the right reasons. However, most lawyers enter partnerships for the wrong reasons, borne out of fear of the unknown, doubt about their own capabilities, and a lack of understanding about what partnership truly means. Do you really need a partner and all of the emotional and financial entanglements it entails in order to assuage those fears? The answer is a resounding "no."

These are the wrong reasons to partner with another lawyer:

  • "I want someone to bounce ideas off of." As a rule, most lawyers are very generous with their knowledge and will give invaluable guidance if asked. It is important to maintain relationships with your peers, law school alumni, your bar associations and the like. You will get all the guidance and mentoring you need. Continuing legal education will provide a great base for practical knowledge and an opportunity to network with others in your area of concentration. Depending upon your office selection, should you choose a shared suite, you will have a built-in sounding board without the financial intimacy.
  • "I want to be able to take a vacation and know my clients are being taken care of." (And from the client’s perspective, "Who will take care of my case if you are not available?") Any solo will tell you they have strong reciprocal relationships with other solos and cover for one another when necessary. It is very important you have a dialogue with your clients about a planned or unplanned absence even if the client never asks because it is a legitimate concern of clients who hire solos.
  • "I don’t want to take all the financial risk." If you are going out on your own, you are taking a calculated risk, period. If you wish to defray cost, how you set up your office, whether working in a suite of other lawyers with shared services or setting up shop by yourself, will determine your cash outlay and financial risk. If you’ve already invested nearly $100,000 in your education, is a few more thousand any riskier?
  • "I’m not very good at (fill in the blank)." Sharing your profits with someone simply because they have an accounting background while you can’t balance a checkbook is not a reason to take on a partner. It is a reason to hire an accountant. If they don’t work out, you get another. Not so easy with a partner.
  • "I want to partner with someone who can teach me." Again, sharing the profits in exchange for guidance is just giving away your hard-earned dollars if you are properly networked, belong to the right associations, and taking continuing legal education.

Do not take on a partner out of fear. You will be living and breathing this partner morning, noon and night. You are depending upon this person for your livelihood while making them the caretaker of your professional reputation.

The short list of the right reasons to take on a partner is:

  • You share a similar vision of where you want to go with your law practice and how you want to get there and are committed to being in it for the long haul.
  • You respect each other's ability as a lawyer and trust the other to make decisions in your absence which will be binding upon you.
  • Each of you has something of comparable value to bring to the partnership, skill sets which complement and enhance each other.
  • Both of you recognize your equal responsibility to develop business and bring in clients.
  • You share a work ethic and morals. (Partnership brings both benefits and liabilities and you do not want to be vulnerable to the ethical missteps of a partner who does not necessarily share your values).
  • You work well together.

Partnerships can be a wonderful experience when entered into for all the rights reasons and with the right partner. If you decide to partner, make sure you have a partnership agreement that clearly spells out all the financial agreements between the partners not just while you are together, but also should you part company... right down to who puts the toothpaste cap back on the toothpaste tube.

Related Posts:

Succession Planning Really Isn't An Option, Particularly For Solos

5 Tips When Sharing Office Space

Become Your Partner's Keeper


Susan Cartier Liebel is the Founder & CEO of Solo Practice University®, the only educational and professional networking community for lawyers and law students designed for those who want to create and grow their solo or small firm practices.

A coach/consultant for solos and small firms, an attorney who started her own practice right out of law school, an Entrepreneur Advisor for 
Law Without Walls, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law for eight years teaching law students how to open their own legal practices right out of law school, a columnist for LawyersUSA Weekly, the Connecticut Law Tribune, The Complete Lawyer, and, she has contributed to numerous online publications such as, legal publications and books on this topic as well as the issues facing women in the workforce. She speaks frequently to law schools and professional organizations around the country on issues facing solos, offering both practical knowledge and inspiration.

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Comments for Partners are for Dancing

Name: Stephen Furnari (@LawFirmSuites)
Time: Tuesday, February 4, 2014

I agree with you wholeheartedly that partnerships are fraught with potential pitfalls. However, if your goal as an attorney is to earn something that approaches Biglaw money in a small firm that you own, the economic realities of small firm law practice dictate that, in many cases, it will be nearly impossible to do as a solo. This is particularly so if you are building a practice from scratch.

As a solo, you’re solely responsible for managing the Three Headed Monster: marketing, billing, and running the business.

Breaking through the $300k - $500k gross range (the income plateau for many solos), requires scaling. Scaling required hiring employees.

Employees require cash, training and management (the latter two requiring more time spent).

With partners, the risk of scaling (and non-billable time commitments) is diversified between more than one person. If one partner has a bad year (which happens) the others can, in theory, offset any loss. For the solo, a dip in revenues can mean big trouble if you’ve scaled up with staff.

The CT attorney referenced in the article may have enough portable business to fund a staff from day one, but she still carries all the risk of keeping business coming through the door to keep the firm going. That’s a heavy burden.

From what I’ve seen both in my own legal career and with clients at Law Firm Suites, the start-up firms that grow their practices the fastest, and the lawyers who make the most money in the shortest period of time start with a three attorney partnership. With three attorneys, non-billable work tends to get divided up in a very efficient way, and provides a powerful platform from which to start to leverage up with salaried attorneys.

It may also allow for a second, and complimentary practice area to be added to the firm (think, two corporate attorneys and one commercial litigator) that can keep more business at the firm and diversifies the firm’s revenue streams.

Of course, it would be imperative to start the partnership for the Right Reasons if it has any chance of lasting long term!

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