|Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2007|
By John D. Russell
In 2004, I began a serious evaluation of my life. While I loved my work as an intellectual property attorney, something seemed to be missing on the job. After considerable discussion with four other attorneys, it became clear we all shared a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo typical of law firm life. We yearned for a better balance between our work and personal lives, for more time for fulfillment on both fronts, for maybe even a little more fun from day to day. Slowly, our thoughts merged into a common vision, and our vision into a plan.
What we hoped to see was an IP firm in which partners who hold a common vision share responsibilities equally and efficiently so that, at the end of the day, there is time for a whole other dimension to our experience, namely, a personal life. We soon concluded that achieving that goal meant giving birth to a brand-new law firm.
Getting there proved to an exhilarating, if at times frightening, experience, much like ordinary parenthood. Even as we turned into the epitome of expectant parents, obsessing over every stage of our venture’s development, parenthood became more than a metaphor in our work-life balancing act; in fact, it became the ultimate test — five times over — of the very enterprise itself. But that’s getting ahead of our story. For now, let’s take it one step — one baby step — at a time.
As some motivational speaker somewhere surely has said, every new venture begins with a meeting. Ours began with a series of them. Our team, which included Mark Alleman, Matt Hall, Anna McCoy, Chris Tuttle and me, met weekly to map out strategies and review our progress. Like any new life, this nascent enterprise needed structure and organization.
Sharing the Work…and More
From the beginning, we agreed that our overriding principles would be teamwork, shared responsibility and trust — values that seemed to us lacking in the structure of the average law firm today. While it’s true that most firms give at least lip service to the ideal of teamwork, the rigid way too many are organized discourages it. When as at most firms a few attorneys are assigned permanent leadership roles, the entire enterprise becomes vulnerable when staff changes occur at these levels, or, or when these key players are absent or incapacitated for one reason or another. We were determined to bypass such problems by not only sharing the work, but above all, the responsibilities. The innovative plan we came up with seemed promising.
While most firms assign the roles of managing and finance partner to one or two individuals, we decided these positions should be shared by all the partners. According to our plan, each partner would assume these roles on a rotating basis for six months at a time. In this way, over time, each would become familiar with the tasks and responsibilities associated with these key positions, and each would be capable of taking over should the partner in charge have to step away for any reason.
So armed with principles, a plan and genuine trust in one another, we knew it was time to launch our baby in the real world of business. For guidance in the mechanics of setting up a law office, we turned to Carol Wilson, a practical management advisor with the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund (PLF). Carol led us through the whole daunting process, from setting up a project timeline and creating a budget to researching computer software and picking out office furniture. We interviewed and screened bankers and bookkeepers, insurance policy holders and computer tech professionals. For our team-driven model to work, we needed a creative and dependable support staff. To house our entire venture, we needed office space, which we finally located in the very heart of downtown Portland, in the historic Jackson Tower directly across the street from Pioneer Square.
Finally, after months of anticipation and preparation, we uncorked the Dom Perignon and officially opened our doors on Jan. 7, 2005 — less than a year since we’d first come together to discuss our hopes for a better work-life balance. There were eight of us on hand that day, five attorneys and our first hires, two paralegals and a billing manager. There was, however, little time for celebration. Clients had followed each attorney from our former firm, and with no time to catch our collective breath, we soon found ourselves inundated with client demands from around the globe. This is when we first began to see the practical benefits of teamwork and shared responsibility. Everyone pitched in, often enlisting the help of friends and family, to set up file cabinets, desks and computer systems. In just a month, our work space was transformed from a vacant series of offices to a functioning law firm. In time, our staff also grew with the addition of several more paralegals, attorneys, engineers and office assistants.
And then came the real test.
One Baby, Two Babies, Three Babies …Yikes!
Since we have a predominantly young work force, we weren’t really surprised when Josi, one of our paralegals, announced within the first month of the firm’s opening that she was expecting a baby. We celebrated the good news and began dispersing her work among the staff in order to efficiently cover her duties while she was away on maternity leave.
Then, a few months later, Matt Hall, one of the firm’s founding partners, announced that he and his wife were also expecting. We supported his decision to take time off, and easily divided his responsibilities among the four remaining partners. While our client base and work load continued to grow, we felt confident in our ability to deal with the additional demands and maternity/paternity leaves.
Over the course of the next several months, two other founding partners, Anna McCoy and Mark Alleman, and our billing manager, Stephanie, announced they too were each expecting babies in their respective families, and would be taking time off. While other firms might have crumbled under these circumstances, our vision of teamwork made these less of a challenge and more a test of our core principles.
To deal with the circumstances and our growth, we hired more people, and developed a backup system whereby each of our employees would appoint a fellow staff member to assume his or her work responsibilities if extended time away from the office would be required. The goal was a backup system that allowed life outside the firm not to be comprised, and a work-life balance achieved with as little difficulty as possible.
It’s been almost two years since we celebrated the "birth" of our new firm, and I’m happy to report that our little venture is still growing fast. Our workload has doubled, and our client base continues to expand. Best of all, the spirit of cooperation on which the firm was founded has made it possible for our employees to balance the challenges of both work and personal life, with even a little time left over for play.
Since opening, Alleman, Hall, McCoy, Russell & Tuttle LLP has survived five births in addition to the first one, i.e., its own. Considering that record, I was confident the team would make do without me for awhile too when my wife and I welcomed our own young one in January this year. That makes six babies and one law firm: Not a bad work-life balance overall.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Russell is a partner in the Portland firm of Alleman, Hall, McCoy, Russell & Tuttle. He holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering (Ohio State University) as a well as a master’s degree in engineering (University of California at Berkeley) and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (Ohio State University). He received his law degree from the University of Michigan.
© 2007 John Russell