Small Firm Partnership: Making it Work
A proven recipe for a successful small firm partnership: Talk often and don’t sweat over money.
Congeniality between partners can be a rare value in big law firms. Sometimes the culture is more like “Game of Thrones,” with dozens of highly educated people spending hours feuding over clients, hours and power. Who gets the most impressive office, the prime parking space, the sharpest associate—everyone’s familiar with that nonsense.
It’s no surprise that many young attorneys spend just a few years at a big firm before moving on, imagining something better, hoping to build a future in the profession they love. They may try going it alone for a little while, but the ebb and flow of business can push many to seek out a partner or two to share costs.
But how many of them ever pause to ask themselves the most critical question: “What kind of partnership do I want?” Unless that issue is addressed at the outset, old patterns are liable to sneak back in. Stratification happens, people fight to become the big dog and you’re right back where you started from. Even at many small firms, you eat what you kill. It’s more like office sharing than a true partnership.
When Sauer and Wagner started out in 1997, we knew what we didn’t want. Although we didn’t know much about each other personally, we had a common vision to escape the internal politics. All that energy and focus is better spent in litigation, where a win for a client speaks for itself.
Just as in successful marriages, open communication, deep trust and shared goals top the list, but friendship, flexibility and laughter in healthy measure builds a team that focuses on two common goals: premium client service and a joint commitment to quality.
Here’s what we’ve learned about making it work.
- Communicate all the time, and mostly in person. Your partner’s office is right there. Discuss issues and respect each other’s intellect. Find alignment in your views of how people should be treated by the law. Be ready to help each other prepare for trial, and to do whatever is needed for the matters at hand.
- Take economics off the table. Share everything equally. Consider a single partner in a true 50-50 partnership. Get away from the typical compensation formulas that the big firms utilize in trying to quantify value, which translates into larger ownership shares and more money for some, at the expense of others. The secret to success is at the end of the year, neither partner has constructed a ledger to argue who worked more hours or who brought in more money. It’s not going to work if someone’s a money grubber, tries to become the Alpha or throws his or her weight around. These things foster resentment which is toxic in any environment.
- When you’re not trying to squeeze the last buck out from your partner, and you’re equal in decision making, you’ll always have to find a common ground. This goes for hiring, capital expenses, buildout of the office, clients to take on. So find ways to agree.
- Successful partners share the same values: Trust, ethics, respect and support. The way they practice should be in sync. Having the same work ethic makes a huge difference. A partnership will fail if someone has a different idea on client quality or about working hard.
- Share clients as well as bring in your own. Know how your partner likes to work, as well as the strengths he or she brings into the mix. Work together and handle different aspects for a client when it makes sense. Be respectful of each other’s way of doing things. If a partner feels a client is difficult and wants to withdraw, let it happen. If a partner feels strongly about taking on someone who maybe can’t afford to hire an attorney, take the client on.
- Disagreements should end in compromise if someone feels especially passionate about something, like the performance of an associate or a hiring decision.
- Treat the people who work with you and for you in the same manner and try to instill that in terms of a team environment.
It takes commitment—there’s no way around it. Partners need to decide to be successful with each other. When you do that, the results are a happy, successful career.
Gerald Sauer and Eve Wagner are the founders of Sauer & Wagner, a six lawyer firm in Los Angeles. The firm recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. They represent plaintiffs and defendants, handling business, entertainment, employment, intellectual property, real estate and construction defect, environmental and public impact disputes.