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Lawyers talk about considerations in leaving firms, opening new practices

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Several attorneys recently have departed established firms to form their own practices, leveraging their legal talents, goodwill and loyal clientele to satisfy entrepreneurial longings.

In three such recent startups, attorneys partnered with colleagues from prior work lives to form an enterprise all their own.

“I always thought I would like to have my own firm at some point,” said Tara Rabiola, who with Jaimie Cairns opened Cairns & Rabiola LLP in downtown Indianapolis after talking about it and planning for just a couple of months. “There’s no perfect time. It’s a leap of faith no matter when you do it.”

apb_startuplawfirms04-15col.jpg Densborn Blachly LLP attorneys have begun working while continuing to unpack in their new firm’s office. From left are Dan Blachly, Jarod Brown and Don Densborn. (IL Photo/ Aaron P. Bernstein)

But it wasn’t an uninformed leap. “We tried to be very conservative with (estimating) expenses,” Rabiola said. “This is our livelihood, so we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.”

Rabiola said she and Cairns shared a computer spreadsheet and charted every conceivable cost. They got tech help and moving assistance from family members, who also provided encouragement, as did clients and former firm partners.

The family law attorneys had

practiced at the five-attorney shop of Ruppert & Schaefer P.C. before opening this month in Lockerbie Marketplace in Indianapolis.

“It has not been nearly as scary or overwhelming as I thought this would be. We’ve been very lucky, I would say. It’s been a very amicable split” from Ruppert & Schaefer, Rabiola said.

That’s been the experience of other attorneys who’ve planted their flags recently. They describe a similar delicate separation process: Informing the firm of their intention, after which the firm notifies clients who then have a decision to make – stick with the firm or follow their lawyer.

Densborn Blachly LLP formed when former Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP partners Don Densborn and David Blachly joined with sole practitioner Jarod Brown to open an office on the north side of Indianapolis. Densborn said the practice will be positioned to serve small to mid-sized companies with business, real estate and financial transactions.

As the three talked for more than two years about the prospect of starting a firm, discretion was paramount, Densborn said. “We were circumspect about not talking to clients or employees about our intentions until we had permission to do so.

“Once we announced to the firm what our intentions were, it could not have gone better,” he said. “I have nothing but kind words for the way the transition was carried off.”

Densborn believes every client with an active matter followed Blachly and him to the new firm. Clay Barnes, CEO of Materials Processing Inc., said the choice was clear when he learned Densborn was forming his own firm. Materials Processing employs more than 450 people in plants in Indiana, Texas and Mexico, and has had a relationship with Densborn for 17 years.

“Taft is a fine law firm, but when it comes to who I want at point, it’s Don,” Barnes said, noting Densborn’s connections to niche attorneys at Taft and elsewhere when the need arises. “We get the best of both worlds, basically.”

Blachly and Densborn have worked together off and on since 1990, when Densborn hired Blachly at former Indianapolis law firm Johnson Smith LLP.

The new firm’s mission statement took just two drafts to write, Densborn said, and recalls some of the early Johnson Smith ethos. “The basic tenets of it, Dave Blachly and I have been talking about for more than 10 years,” he said. One of those tenets: “To provide a platform for talented lawyers, not just to ply their skills, but to self-actualize personally and professionally.” The goal is to attract talented lawyers, on their terms, to do the work they do best, Densborn said.

The firm settled on space with room to grow in the Parkwood office complex on East 96th Street.

“There’s a lot of talent out there,” Densborn said, noting the firm hopes to hire soon or find partnership arrangements.

Another recent startup, Robert Means LLC, also chose to put down roots on the north side of Indianapolis, locating in Five River Crossing on River Road. Founders Jeffrey Roberts and William Means were on a path toward becoming partners at their respective firms, Roberts said, but they also wanted a firm to call their own.

“We were both 11 or 12 years out in our practices, and we both were extremely confident in our ability to represent clients in the best way possible,” Roberts said. But starting a firm took more than just entrepreneurial desire. “It’s tempting for anyone who has a business mind, but I think it would have been irresponsible to do this before we honed our skills.”

apb-startuplawfirms01-15col.jpg Cairns & Rabiola LLP attorneys Tara Rabiola, left, and Jaimie Cairns recently opened their family law practice in offices at Lockerbie Marketplace in downtown Indianapolis. After several months of planning, they left their former firm to set up shop. (IL Photo/ Aaron P. Bernstein)

Roberts and Means worked together years back at Riley Bennett & Egloff LLP and stayed in touch afterward. Over the years, they worked at firms large and small, taking pieces of what works from each to form the kind of shop they wanted. Roberts practices mainly in business law while Means primarily practices family law.

“When we were planning this, we envisioned a scenario where it would be very slow from Day One and we would have to work our way up,” Roberts said. “We were pleasantly surprised quite a few (clients) followed us.”

Like Densborn Blachly, Roberts Means chose space where there was room to grow from the start. Growth may take the form of hiring attorneys or associates, or partnering with other lawyers in an of-counsel or other arrangement. “It’s exciting for us to be in that position as firm owners to discuss those types of strategic growth opportunities,” Roberts said. “You don’t get to do that as much if you’re in a larger firm environment.”

Densborn said formation of his new firm comes at a time that the profession is enduring seismic changes. “Most experts say law firms will have to be big to the point of being international in scope, or you’ve got to be more ‘boutiquish,’ if you will,” he said.

“I think we’re focused more on controlling costs for the benefit of our clients and making profit that way than just trying to raise billable rates for hours across the board. … The corporate community is clearly rebelling against the billable hour.”

Cairns and Rabiola likewise were concerned about making sure they could offer clients good service at a reasonable cost. Immediate growth wasn’t a consideration for them. Rabiola said they chose their office space for a couple of key reasons: its central location and free parking.

“Something we both really felt was important was doing divorce and custody cases as efficiently and affordably as possible,” Rabiola said. “Our clients write checks from the same account they use to buy groceries from and pay the mortgage with.”

To keep costs down, Rabiola and Cairns are doing it all – answering the phones, paying the bills, scheduling and handling other office chores in addition to representing the couple of dozen or so clients who followed each of them.

Rabiola’s philosophy for anyone thinking of leaving a firm to start their own: “Go into it knowing there are no guarantees out there. Do it smartly and conservatively. … You can always get bigger.”

Roberts believes this is a good time for new firms that have a vision, but the idea of establishing a startup isn’t for everyone.

“There are certainly attorneys out there who want to practice law, and that’s it,” he said. “And that’s great. But you can’t have that mindset if you do what we did.

“Running the business and practicing law are two completely different tasks, but they’re both equally important when you open and run a small firm like we have,” Roberts said.•

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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