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.”
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
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.”
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.•