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Ed Poll
  Week of February 19, 2008

When Is It Time to Leave?

The members of a successful law firm need a fundamental basis for working together. Lawyers who physically share the same office environment should share common goals and agree on how to achieve them. Lack of such an outlook will sooner or later mean the dissolution of the firm in its current form, when one or more of the lawyers inevitably decide, "I no longer want to work here."
Sometimes the source of the disagreement is financial. It's true that people will accept less than the top compensation as long as they like their colleagues. While the money must be at least nearly competitive, other factors can come into play, such as the exchange of ideas and the education of one lawyer by another. These are important to a successful lawyer but the question becomes, are they essential?
It's important to have a framework for making a decision. I recommend analyzing three threshold levels, in ascending order, as a way to decide whether to leave a firm:

  • Threshold One - Personality: Do you like the people you work with?
  • Threshold Two - Economics: Are you earning enough money to make staying worthwhile?
  • Threshold Three - Values: Does the firm take a shared approach to compensation and clients, or is it every lawyer for him/herself?

Even if, after such an analysis, the decision to leave seems clear-cut, leaving won't necessarily be easy. Leaving a law firm is an emotional process. You must want to do so, and believe that you have no other alternative. Even if you are going to another firm, a successful transition will require all the traits of an entrepreneur: motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency, commitment, and persistence. There is no one way to find out if you have what it takes. Deep introspection is advised. Perhaps start with a traditional SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) of yourself and your practice. Talk to others who have been in similar situations. Seek advice and counsel from respected advisers and consultants.
To some extent, any such analysis will be subjective, but it does create a structured framework for planning. You must decide what you want to be, what you want to do, and where you want to do it. A more fulfilling practice and a better life could await you.

Ed Poll

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Ed Poll
Ed Poll

Personal Commentary
Two lawyers just consulted with me about whether, and how, to join forces. One has been on his own, a sole practitioner, for a long time and is a good rainmaker. He spends money on items such as valet parking, working out with a trainer, etc. and expenses these items through the law firm. He doesn't have to ask permission from anyone. The other has been a contract lawyer for many years, and doesn't have a significant independent clientele. He is far more conservative in his spending habits.
Can these two lawyers join forces? That was the question. I suggested that there are two issues that need to be addressed before further discussion:
1) Can they each submerge their egos sufficiently to work together for the long term? Can they devise a structure/method to deal with future conflict without tearing the firm asunder?
2) Can they develop a methodology for determining compensation, a formula or other technique that will remove/reduce conflict over this issue in the future. While they are both feeling generous and harmonious now, what will they do when it's realized later that one is the "producer" primarily of the work and the other is the "rainmaker" primarily. Though each will produce and develop the practice, there will be an emphasis on one or the other; and will they continue to respect and honor those differences in the future?
These are crucial questions that need to be addressed, like a pre-nuptial agreement, before merging two separate practices. Building a firm is better from many perspectives, economically and otherwise, than being solo. Being a sole practitioner has its own rewards, however. Before jumping into the shower together, both lawyers need to believe that they can share the same space in harmony.
Best wishes,
Ed Poll

Ed Poll
Ed Poll

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Ed Poll
Ed Poll

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