New partnerships require a shared vision, bit of nerve

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Lawyers who’ve teamed up to start firms as partnerships say putting their professional names and reputations on the line together takes mutual trust, respect, a shared vision, and a fair amount of nerve.

Where will clients come from? How will the bills get paid? What if things don’t work out?

“Definitely, those thoughts are there before you take the leap, when you take the leap, and after you take the leap,” said Bob Johnson, who with Travis Jensen formed the personal injury firm of Johnson Jensen LLP in Indianapolis about four years ago.

Johnson said he felt reassured, though, when a veteran lawyer confided in him, “I’m 75 years old, and I still worry about that.”

“Insecurity is always there,” Johnson said. “But you just kind of bear down and put it aside.”

Johnson-Jensen-6-15col.jpg Founders of Indianapolis personal injury firm Johnson Jensen LLP Travis Jensen, left, and Robert Johnson, right, were friends and colleagues who had talked for years about forming a partnership before doing so about four years ago. “I can anticipate what Bob’s going to do,” Jensen said. “And I know he’s going to have my back.” (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

Jensen and Johnson, both Lafayette natives, had worked together at larger firms at different points during their careers – Johnson began practicing in 1993 and Jensen in 1998 – before they realized they had similar ideas for the kind of firm they wanted.

“We really tried to build a practice by trying to utilize technology and go with less mass advertising,” Jensen said. The firm’s website puts a focus on current clients, and the partnership,

which handles personal injury, medical negligence, medical malpractice and other plaintiff injury matters, also was launched on a contingency-fee basis.

“Oftentimes counsel in a relatively new firm will have to finance a case that could take several years to come to conclusion,” he said. “It creates an interesting dynamic.”

But Jensen said results can be measured by the response the firm has received. “The vast majority of new work comes from referrals from attorneys or clients.”

Jensen and Johnson had talked occasionally for years about forming a firm before their plans materialized. “Bob and I both had a lot of choices as to who to partner with,” Jensen said. “I’ve never been more proud to be partnered with somebody than with Bob.”

Straight out of school

Brandon Tate and Kevin Bowen were students at Indiana University McKinney School of Law when they began talking seriously during their second year about starting a firm in Indianapolis upon graduation. Tate & Bowen LLP will mark its first anniversary this fall.

Bowen said both he and Tate passed up good opportunities in order to pursue a common vision. “We both had that entrepreneurial spirit, and we knew this was a worthwhile cause and we could be successful,” Bowen said.

“We started outlining what we wanted in a law firm,” Tate said. “We didn’t want to be a two-attorney office forever.”

Bowen said he used a third-year course on law firm management to develop a business blueprint and budgets complete with how much money he and Tate would have to invest, keeping overhead as low as possible at the start.

The firm’s niche would be family and criminal law for lower-income people who don’t qualify for public defenders or legal assistance. From there, the plan was to grow into a more general practice, Tate said.

“We actually got calls the first day,” Bowen said. “There hasn’t been a whole lot of down time.”

Tate and Bowen said the first year has shattered the expectations of their business plan. With Tate’s experience in contract matters and Bowen’s background in family and criminal law, Tate said the partnership is fielding an increasingly diverse portfolio of clients.

“We can almost double-team the law and learn and teach each other as we learn it,” Tate said.

What matters most

TateBowen-2-15col.jpg Brandon Tate, left, and Kevin Bowen, right, developed a business plan during their third year of law school and opened Tate & Bowen LLP in Indianapolis after passing the bar. The focus was family law and criminal defense for low- to moderate-income people who were just above the threshold for public assistance. “We actually got calls the first day,” Bowen said. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

Law firm partners agree there’s one overriding quality for a successful partnership.

“Reliability. Period,” Jensen said. “You have to know in this business where things are thrown at you every day that you can’t anticipate you have to have somebody you know you can rely on.

“I can anticipate what Bob’s going to do,” he said. “And I know he’s going to have my back.”

“We figured out we wanted the same thing as far as a law firm,” Johnson said. “We wanted equal responsibility, we wanted to leverage the amazing technology that’s out there to be able to compete with the larger defense firms on cases, and we wanted to practice law the way we wanted to and know we have each other’s backs.”

Johnson said he and Jensen also wanted an environment where communication was open and honest. “I’ve always said the practice of law is hard enough, and if you have issues in the office between partners, it’s almost impossible to practice in a way that’s pleasant or successful.”

Bowen and Tate, meanwhile, agree the differences in their personalities are helpful.

“He’s more reserved while I complemented him on being very outspoken,” Bowen said, and Tate agreed. “He’s more attentive to detail while I’m more ‘big-picture’ oriented.

“We’re friends first and we’ve tried not to let that get in the way of professionalism,” Bowen said. “We do put in the hours, and I trust he’s going to put in as much work as I do.

Tate said law partners need to be able to disagree, argue and come to resolution amicably on issues in cases or on whether to take on a client, for example. “You’re not the sole decision-maker,” he said. “It’s pretty important to know you’ll be able to solve problems with that person.”

Long-term success

James A. Schafer, an attorney for 42 years, has been affiliated with Muncie partnerships since 1981 and currently is in the partnership of Painter & Schafer. He wanted a practice in a smaller city after working for years in Indianapolis.

“You have to get along personally, and your have to have similar thoughts in terms of how to practice,” Schafer said. Like others, he observed that a legal partnership is like a marriage, though he quipped that in law firms, “opposites do not attract.”

Schafer said younger attorneys who are thinking about starting a partnership owe it to themselves to gain some practical experience. He urges young lawyers to take a case to trial to gain experience and not to rely too much on email and social media, which he believes can foster incivility. “Get out and meet people,” he advised. “You’ll get more done.”

Even agreements between unofficial partners need to see things the same way, said Fort Wayne attorney Dan Roby. Unlike formal partnerships, Roby has shared office space and expenses with attorneys over the years, first as Roby & Hood and currently with Tom Manges as Roby & Manges.

“We have no written partnership agreement whatsoever,” Roby said, though attorneys in the office do share liabilities under common malpractice coverage. It’s an amicable arrangement where case-sharing duties and expectations are clear from the beginning, he said. Roby believes more attorneys should consider such arrangements.

“Even sharing office space is a marriage of a sort, and you’ve got to be compatible partners,” Roby said. “You’ve got to be confident that your fellow so-called partner is competent and responsible enough that he or she is not going to get you into trouble.”

Johnson said people embarking on a partnership also have to be prepared to share personal and financial information with their perspective partners. “Let them know where you are in life so you both know where you’re trying to go,” he said.

Tate and Bowen, meanwhile, already have returned to McKinney to share their experience with students and let them know that with a plan, they will be in a position to shape their futures. Tate said it’s a message that resonates in a weak legal job market.

“More people should do it and shouldn’t be afraid to try it,” he said.•


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.