Joining forces. Teaming up. Going partners. Whatever you call it, choosing a law partner can be a pivotal decision in one’s career. Most criminal defense attorneys practice solo, enjoying the “lone-wolf” style of life. However, a well working partnership can enhance the lives of each partner in ways that one lawyer working alone cannot. Conversely, the wrong collaboration (as in marriage) could mean professional and financial disaster. So, what essential qualities should your partner have if you’re contemplating the plunge? What qualities should a prospective law partner look for in you? A successful and long-lasting alliance, suffice it to say, is one based on value compatibility at many different levels.
On ethics and character. Partners should be acting for the greater good of the firm even at their personal expense. Will your potential law partner regularly make this sacrifice? And will you? Partners should share similar standards of ethical conduct. You don’t want to lose sleep over what your law partner is doing in-and-out of the office. In this regard, you may not want to be the significantly more conservative lawyer. Once bound in business, lawyers may be liable for the unethical conduct of their law partner. See Rule 5.01, Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. Consequently, prospective law partners should share a similar level of commitment toward ethical conduct. At a more foundational level your law partner must be someone you trust. Lack of trust builds resentment on both sides and erodes the partnership’s goals. Would you trust the candidate with your money? With your clients? Partners in a law firm have a fiduciary responsibility to each other and the firm. Will you trust them to do the right thing where the conduct of client matters is concerned? And beyond this, how will the partners deal fairly and ethically with associates and staff? If you have questions about a prospect’s qualifications, talk to judges, opposing counsel, and other lawyers with whom the candidate has worked. If they are a good choice your inquires will be welcomed.
On spending money. Are you a saver or a spender? Your law partner’s spending habits may become your problem. Since money troubles bring relationship troubles, the partners should be synchronized when it comes to cash. We tend to avoid financial issues until obstacles develop. Consequently, talk money before committing yourself to the partnership. How much will you spend on salaries and benefits? What is the most appropriate compensation formula for the partners? What about the marketing budget? How much of gross monthly receipts should be earmarked for overhead and new client development? Will your partner require large expenditures for malpractice insurance? How will the profits of the partnership be disbursed or plowed back into the firm as equity? Are you bringing money or property to the partnership? Who will control the utilization of these resources? The money issue list goes on and on. Develop a plan with your partner to address contingencies.
On practice management and business development. People combine forces for mutual advantage. A successful partnership doesn’t require the attorneys to practice the same kind of law. Indeed, lawyers practicing in different specialties can support each other and develop opportunities for cross-selling. In the stock market world it’s called diversification. Are you in agreement regarding the types of clients the firm will accept? More clients at lower fees or fewer clients at premium pricing? Are your strategies for fee collection complementary? Is your prospective partner as committed to business expansion as you? How will the firm develop new clients? Who will be the rainmaker or will both partners pull equal weight? Who will be responsible for updating the firm’s website with regular, fresh content? Do you have the same commitment to customer service, returning phone calls, and promise keeping? Depending upon your natural strengths and talents, what qualities make you a valuable asset to a prospective partner? A law partnership is, first and foremost, a business arrangement. Reduce your partnership agreement to writing and avoid messiness, conflicts, and misunderstandings in the future. Considering hiring an outside consulting lawyer to help craft the accord.
Given these points, there is something visionary about an alliance becoming greater than the sum of its individual parts. An effective law partnership can do that by being both professionally and personally rewarding. So, if you wish to renounce the lone-wolf lifestyle and team up with another lawyer, consider the multifarious values at stake. Money and practice management will always be an issue. Ethics and character are even more foundational. Most of all, enjoy the adventure together.
(“Off the Back” featured in the “Voice For The Defense” March 2015)
Stephen Gustitis is a criminal defense lawyer in Bryan-College Station. He is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is also a husband, father, and retired amateur bicycle racer.
“Off the Back” is an expression in competitive road cycling describing a rider dropped by the lead group who has lost the energy saving benefit of riding in the group’s slipstream. Once off the back the rider struggles alone in the wind to catch up. The life of a criminal defense lawyer shares many of the characteristics of a bicycle rider struggling alone, in the wind, and “Off the Back.” This column is for them.