Lawyers resign from Big Law and government service for a variety of reasons: greater autonomy; a more flexible work-life balance; and the ability to set their own billing rates, to name a few. Others may seek greater stability than can be found navigating the cycle between rapid hiring during a rising economy and precipitous layoffs when recession looms. How should lawyers approach going out on their own, managing both business aspects and client development and retention at the same time, while enjoying the process and thriving both professionally and personally? We asked five attorneys in different practice areas and from different parts of the country who recently founded or co-founded their own firms. Here are their insights.
Robert DiCuccio of Katz, Pryor & DiCuccio, LLP, concentrates on all aspects of real estate law, business law, personal injury and medical negligence. Mr. DiCuccio also represents clients in re-zoning and zoning variance matters.
|Karineh Khachatourian, co-founder and managing partner of the intellectual property boutique KXT Law in Silicon Valley, focuses her practice on IP and Commercial Complex Litigation on a wide range of technologies, including enterprise and consumer products utilizing computer software and hardware, with an emphasis on data security, encryption, communication technologies, electronics and video gaming. Ms. Khachatourian served on the Executive Committee and Board and as General Counsel for Watermark, a group for executive women; a partner with Leading Women in Technology as well as with Chips, an organization that advances women in IP law.|
Lou Russo, the founder of Russo Law LLC, is an accomplished business lawyer, arbitrator, professor and author with over 15 years of legal experience. Having been trained at AmLaw100 firms, Mr. Russo now serves as outside general counsel for small and medium-sized businesses. Mr. Russo also acts as an arbitrator in FINRA and American Arbitration Association consumer cases.
||Nadia Shihata is a Founding Partner of Shihata & Geddes LLP, a women-owned boutique law firm based in New York City specializing in civil rights and sexual misconduct matters, internal investigations, wrongful convictions and criminal defense. Nadia previously served as a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York for over 11 years, where she held several senior leadership roles.|
John J. Thompson started his career with a corporate law firm in New York City before transitioning to solo practice and then merging with J.R. Skrabanek to form Thompson & Skrabanek, a Manhattan-based litigation boutique with four attorneys.
Why did you start your firm?
RD: I felt that I would be better able to service my clients and increase my value as an attorney if I could have greater influence in the day-to-day management of the firm’s systems and practices. I’m lucky as well to have two great partners who share the same vision. We strive to consistently provide great legal advice to our clients in a cost-effective and transparent manner; being able to run our business as we want is essential to that goal.
KK: Rather than fit into a pre-existing model and infrastructure, we wanted the freedom and autonomy to build something that could be customized to fit our team members and clients’ individual needs as they developed and changed over time. We thought it was important to have a “one size does not fit all” model, to have the flexibility to adapt as the market changes and to try new things that other larger firms might shy away from.
LR: I started Russo Law because I knew there had to be a better way. In my nearly 12 years working at the nation’s largest and most prestigious firms, I found myself working ungodly hours, feeling underappreciated and unable to develop a sustainable book of business due to astronomical rates that small and medium-sized businesses could never afford. This was all happening as my wife and I were starting our family.
The desire to create something different – something that aligned with my values and allowed me to provide tangible value to clients by focusing on economical deliverables rather than unachievable billables – became the driving force behind Russo Law. I wanted to break free from the limitations I experienced in my previous job and create a business that prioritized client satisfaction, efficiency, affordability and mutual success, which I defined in part as being able to watch my two sons grow up.
By founding Russo Law, my goal was to foster an environment where clients would feel valued, receive top-notch services at reasonable rates and see their businesses thrive. It was a way for me to create a more fulfilling professional and personal journey while making a positive impact on the lives of my clients.
NS: The better part of my legal career has been spent in public service, most recently as a federal prosecutor for over 11 years in the Eastern District of New York (where my law partner, Liz Geddes, also was a prosecutor for 16 years). In public service, we had the opportunity to work on complex investigations and cases in areas that were very meaningful to us and that often had an impact on a broader community, beyond the participants in any given case.
In thinking about what to do next, it was important to both of us to continue doing interesting, meaningful work in areas we care deeply about. We ultimately concluded the best way to do that was to create our own firm, where we have complete autonomy in deciding what areas to focus on, what matters to take on, how to do so (whether it’s an hourly fee arrangement, pro bono or on a contingency basis) and can create our own firm culture.
JJT: I wanted to own the direction of my own practice. I started my career with a Big Law firm and had a generally positive experience, but I struggled with the lack of control over the areas of law I found myself in. There may have been a bit of room to maneuver between partners and practice groups, but not much.
I recall being warned about this by an acquaintance who was a senior associate at a similar firm. He told me about how he was asked one day if he could help on a telecom compliance issue. The case ended up ballooning into a massive litigation, and four years later he was a telecom litigation expert with no background in anything else. He never really chose the practice area; it chose him. I wanted to avoid that. I wanted the freedom to find the type of cases and clients that best fit my interests and skills.
Would you make the decision to start your own firm again?
RD: Absolutely. Starting our firm was a risk, but it was also the best decision I’ve ever made in my professional career. Being a partner in a firm, rather than an associate, has given my life so much more flexibility and depth. I’ve always been an attorney who puts in the work for his clients, however, now I also get to put in the work for myself and my partners.
KK: A resounding YES! I often wonder in amazement how our transition to our own firm was so seamless. Everyone I had spoken to during diligence said it was not difficult to start your own firm and that you will never be happier. My experience is that they were right.
LR: Absolutely, without a doubt, I would make the decision to start my own firm again. Despite the challenges and frustrations I faced in my previous work environment, establishing my own firm has been a transformative and rewarding experience. It allowed me to break free from the limitations and dissatisfaction I previously experienced at law firms. By starting my own firm, I have been able to align my values with my professional goals, prioritize client satisfaction and provide tangible value at reasonable rates, all while having unparalleled flexibility that allows me to work on the matters I enjoy and find a better work-life balance. The decision to start my own firm has empowered me to create an environment where clients feel appreciated, receive high-quality services and witness the success of their businesses.
NS: Absolutely. It’s been incredibly exciting and rewarding to start something from the ground up and tap into the entrepreneurial aspects of starting your own business, something I didn’t have the opportunity to do in government. I could not be happier to have taken this leap and to have done so with an amazingly talented partner, which certainly made the decision much easier.
JJT: In a heartbeat, yes. If I could do it over again, there are a thousand things I would do differently, but I would 100% start my own firm again.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of starting your firm?
RD: The most rewarding experience of starting my firm has been setting my own schedule and taking on the matters that speak to me. As an associate, you generally do not get to choose your clients or your cases. But, as a partner, I get to make those decisions now. This has made me a much happier person and a better lawyer. Additionally, the flexibility of owning my own practice has been so beneficial to my family. My wife, Lindsay, and I just welcomed our first child into the world in May. If I didn’t work for myself, I probably wouldn’t have been able to make myself available for my family as often as I want. Being there for my wife and my son is the most important thing to me, and owning my own firm has made me a better husband and father.
KK: I am beaming with pride every day I turn on my laptop and see the KXT Logo. It is very rewarding to have more flexibility to address client and team member goals, which we can do swiftly by having access to all the different resources we now have at our fingertips to better support our team members and our clients.
LR: Starting my own firm has been incredibly rewarding. One of the best parts is directly contributing to the success of my small and medium-sized business clients. I also choose the work that excites me, such as buying and selling businesses or resolving partnership disputes, which adds to the fulfillment of my professional journey. But not having to sacrifice precious time for myself and my family is the major advantage. I now enjoy a healthy work-life balance, ensuring quality time with my loved ones. I even get to travel with my sons for their hockey games and tournaments, which brings me great pride. Having this flexibility is a relief after spending over a decade at large law firms, where billing hours took precedence, at the expense of personal relationships. Aligning my passion with my work has been a game-changer, as I take immense pride in making a positive impact and building meaningful relationships with clients.
NS: Getting to know, and being in a position to help, our clients, many of whom have gone through or are going through very difficult situations.
JJT: Taking pride of ownership in everything I do. And, a close second, passing on the things I don’t care to do.
Explain why size doesn’t matter or why small is better.
RD: A smaller firm has advantages that a larger firm simply can’t replicate. For instance, our low overhead and relatively small payroll lets us offer legal services at a much more reasonable price point while still maintaining a high level of client satisfaction. Our small size lets us be nimble and highly responsive to client communications and questions in a way that a larger firm would probably struggle to compete with. This isn’t to say that larger firms don’t have advantages of their own. But, on balance, I think that the vast majority of people or companies looking for representation would do well to choose a smaller firm over a larger one.
KK: Size doesn’t matter because you hire lawyers not firms. Smaller firms can scale up quickly and partner with other smaller or larger firms if necessary. There are all types of resources and technology out there that allows you to scale quickly if you need to. Smaller firms are trained to do more with less and, therefore, will have a more targeted representation on what matters. You will also work with a law firm where every team member knows everything about your matter from beginning to end and have been working together for a long time.
LR: Choosing a small law firm or solo practitioner over a large firm has many distinct advantages. Clients benefit from personalized attention, affordable rates and increased flexibility. Instead of communicating with inexperienced associates, clients of small firms typically have direct access to seasoned attorneys who handle their cases. Additionally, smaller firms often have lower overhead costs, resulting in lower fees without compromising quality. Moreover, small firms and solo practitioners can leverage of counsel and co-counsel arrangements to increase their bandwidth when needed. This allows them to collaborate with others and efficiently handle larger or more complex cases. By choosing a small firm or solo practitioner, clients can enjoy the benefits of individualized care, cost-effectiveness and the ability to tap into additional resources when necessary.
NS: Small is better for clients who want personal attention, responsive lawyers and creative solutions. We are nimble, innovative and unencumbered by the notion of simply doing things the way they have always been done before. Small firms are also efficient because we have to be, which benefits our clients.
JJT: More than anything, it’s a question of value. When clients pay for a large firm, they are paying for a marketing department, a law library, a multi-million dollar lease, origination fees, etc. Small firms stay lean and mean. I believe they tend to offer better value.
And from the lawyer’s perspective, with a small team, you don’t have to compromise as much — on your standards, your priorities and your values. You work the way you want, with the people you want. And you do the work that matters to you. I think that’s invaluable.
What’s special about you and your firm that attracts clients?
RD: Our firm specializes in all areas of business and real estate law, as well as probate law and personal injury. To use real estate as an example, our small firm offers legal services which cover essentially every aspect of real estate law. I specialize in real estate litigation, so I handle cases ranging from quiet title, foreclosure prosecution and partition actions to breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duties and construction disputes. My partner, Stephen Pryor, handles all our transactional matters, borrowing from years of experience as a real estate broker and attorney. My partner, Steven Katz, utilizes his experience inside the courthouse as a former staff attorney to guide his clients through complex real estate litigation. Between us, we have significant experience handling just about any real estate matter we come across. This is just one example of the ways we attract and retain our clients.
KK: We are creative lawyers that do not shy away from difficult cases. The more complex the better. And we work very hard to try to obtain the best results we can for our clients and never give up. We do what is in the best interests of the client to meet their objectives, even if that means we have to take the road less travelled.
LR: What makes Russo Law truly special is our unwavering focus on delivering white glove service, being responsive to client needs and the consistent praise we receive. I go the extra mile to make our clients feel valued and taken care of every step of the way. From the first contact, the firm is hyper-focused on delivering a personalized and tailored experience that leaves a lasting impression. I also am keenly focused on responsiveness, something that I was trained to do in my time at the nation’s preeminent law firms. We understand the importance of timely communication and being there for our clients when they need us.
NS: We are a women-owned firm run by two former federal prosecutors with decades of experience. The size of our firm allows us to provide really personalized service to our clients, no matter how small or big the matter. When clients come to us for help, they know they are getting us: two partners with exceptional experience and pedigrees on par with our Big Law peers. We pride ourselves on getting into the weeds of each case – knowing the details and nuances – to efficiently provide sound legal advice to our clients, addressing their specific needs and challenges. We are also very confident in the courtroom, having conducted dozens of trials, hearings and oral arguments.
JJT: First and foremost, our rates. We keep our overhead extremely tight and it allows us to offer extremely competitive rates for our area (Manhattan).
After that, our youthful and aggressive energy and — in most cases — our experience with the type of dispute involved.
Beyond that, it’s all about trust. The client needs to trust you, and if they don’t know you at the outset, they take a chance on you for whatever reason. I’m not always sure what convinces them to take that leap of faith, but I try to always remind myself that it’s the client who had to take that first step. It motivates me to be grateful for the opportunity and to follow through to earn that trust.
About the Author
Nick Gaffney is founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco and a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @nickgaffney.