Choosing a partner for your law practice is one of the most important decisions you can make. Choosing wisely can mean the difference between success or failure, between satisfaction or misery, and between an ethical or shady reputation.
Hi, I’m Kimberly Hanlon, co-owner of MoreLaw Minneapolis, the executive suites for attorneys that looks and feels like a law office.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that law firms form and dissolve every day. Not long ago I was visiting with a lawyer friend of mine who was thinking about starting a firm with another attorney, but she wasn’t really sure if it was a good idea or not.
Here’s the advice I gave her:
Going into business with someone is like a marriage. You wouldn’t enter into a marriage without thoughtfully selecting your spouse – at least I hope you wouldn’t. It’s just as important to make a thoughtful selection when choosing who you will go into business with – after all, you are going to be spending a lot of time with that person and making decisions that will affect your future and your monetary interest. It’s not enough to just pick someone you liked from law school, or someone you know from your previous firm. You have to be compatible on so many levels for you to build a successful practice together. I’m not saying that it is insurmountable to have a successful law partnership – it just takes thoughtful selection after some frank discussions.
For instance, you need to be like minded in…
How you spend money. Nothing brings discord in a business partnership like having a spender be partnered with a saver. You need to be in sync when it comes to the budget, what you are going to do with profit, how much you expect to retain in the firm as equity, and when you are going to have growth expenditures. Just like in a marriage, money troubles bring relationship troubles, and money troubles often spring forth from differences of opinion, even when there’s enough money to go around.
You also need to be like minded in how you conduct your cases. It doesn’t matter whether you and your partner are going to be practicing in the same or different areas of law – you need to be on the same page philosophically as to how to service your clients, whether you are more litigation or ADR oriented, whether you take high-risk or more conservative cases, and how you handle high-conflict cases, or even media coverage. Even if you are both taking different types of cases, eventually you will end up covering for the other, or even taking over a case here or there, or working together on a case. It will not work well if you are at odds in your basic philosophy about how cases should proceed or how clients should be handled.
Lastly, you need to be like minded in your sense of ethics and professionalism. Once you hitch your wagon to your law partner, you are liable for their unethical and shady shenanigans. Fortunately, most people do not actually practice in an absolutely unethical manner, but there are plenty of shades of grey in which reasonable minds may differ. You don’t want to be the significantly more conservative lawyer – or else you will be losing sleep wondering what your partner is up to that you might find highly concerning. An erosion of trust does nothing but build resentment – on both sides.
So, let’s say you’ve found the perfect, or near perfect, partner. You have the same sensibilities when it comes to money, cases, client management, and ethics. The best thing you can do is put agreements in place, and in writing, detailing how the firm and your business relationship is going to work. Partnership agreements and buy-sell agreements aren’t just for other businesses – they are for law firms, too. Having them in place avoids messiness, and even conflict, in the future.
Remember, a law firm is first and foremost a business, and you need to have a business mindset when starting one.
I hope these tips will be useful in your practice – thanks for watching!
by Kimberly Hanlon
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