My wife, Leslie, pursued an entrepreneurial venture mid-career like me, founding Leslie’s Leashes, provider of pet care services like dog walking and sitting to grateful animals on the North Shore of Long Island. There are only so many half-hour time slots for pet visits in a day, especially when everyone wants theirs to be at noon, so Leslie has hired walkers as demand for her services grew. However, some of the more particular clients specifically want Leslie to be the walker.
Carolyn Elefant, writing (sensibly) in Above the Law, argues in favor of loosening restrictions in the U.S. against ownership of law firms by non-attorneys. She focuses on the increasing need for small firms to partner with non-lawyer professionals and how the inability to compensate these professionals by sharing profits makes it unnecessarily difficult to function. Regardless of a firm’s reasons for wanting to bring in non-lawyer equity holders, it’s worth considering the policy rationale underlying the current restrictions.
The general fear is that non-lawyer equity holders would interfere with legal decisions that should be left to the lawyers. This is a reasonable concern. To take a concrete example, suppose I had an outside non-lawyer investor in my firm, and suppose further that I was advising a cash-poor startup company who was negotiating with an outside investor on terms that I found to be inadvisable for the client. Now, it would be in my pure financial interest (short-term anyway) to downplay my concerns and let the client proceed with the investment, since it would mean my firm would get paid. But I’m constrained by ethical obligations that require me to put the client’s interests first. If my firm’s investor, however, became aware of this issue, the investor would be expected to push me to withhold my sound advice to the client.
Eilene Zimmerman, whose ex-husband Peter died of a drug overdose, published an arresting account of his descent into addiction. Peter was a patent attorney at Wilson Sonsini, and Zimmerman ties Peter’s story to a larger problem of drug and alcohol abuse in the legal profession. While I haven’t witnessed much of this problem firsthand in my interactions with other attorneys, the problem identified by the article is that the culture at law firms leads attorneys to hide signs of weakness, so it’s not surprising that I haven’t seen it.
The New York Times writes about the rise of “pop-up” employers, essentially temporary organizations that are organized for a specific project and then go away. As the article notes, certain types of activities have been organized in this manner for a long time – Hollywood productions and political campaigns, for example. What’s changed recently is the exponential improvement in technology that can match people to tasks efficiently, allowing even complex organizations in many different industries to be created quickly.
I believe this approach could be employed in the provision of legal services. Currently, only large law firms can efficiently handle projects requiring the involvement of more than a few attorneys. But it’s not hard to imagine a portal that can be used to identify a team of attorneys to work on, say, an M&A transaction (senior and junior corporate people, tax, benefits, etc.). Of course, this sort of arrangement would have to be harmonized with existing rules for attorney client relationships (i.e., does the client engage the portal or each of the individual attorneys? How are conflicts handled?). As I’ve written about recently, my firm has joined a network of solo and small firms, and this sort of arrangement has the potential for being the basis for pop-up teams of attorneys. [Read more…]
Gary Ross, another founder of a small corporate law firm, writes in Above the Law about how lawyers should handle client inquiries about areas of law outside their specialty. As Ross notes, this issue comes up far more for lawyers at small law firms than it does at big ones, where there is usually someone with appropriate seniority and expertise to weigh in.
Clients should definitely avoid the mindset that lawyers should be able to speak intelligently about the basics for every area of the law. Law school and the bar exam cover a lot of ground, but far from everything. There is no reason to expect that a randomly selected lawyer would be able to rattle off details about, say, import/export regulation or local liquor licensing requirements, if asked out of the blue. While there are still true generalists who practice in small towns, their actual knowledge base is limited to the types of matters that generally come up among citizens doing regular things, i.e., not derivatives regulation.