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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. 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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