Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2009
Parting Thoughts
A Lifetime of Lessons
By John D. Russell

Five years ago, my partner and I decided to start a new intellectual property boutique law firm. While we had plenty of ideals and innocence, we also had plain old naiveté. Looking back, one thing is clear: In just five short years, we learned a lifetime of lessons. These are my top five pieces of advice for anyone else that is planning to, thinking about, or recently started, a new law firm.

Rule Number One: Don’t just follow the conventional rules. Instead, use your head and think. There have been reams of paper spent on books about how to run a law firm and they all generally have the same clichés: Serve your clients well. People are your most valuable asset. Advertise wisely. Sure, this is all good advice, but you went to law school and learned how to think for yourself based upon the unique facts of each circumstance. Now is the time to use that skill. Rather than blindly following the examples set before you, allow yourself to consider new ideas that will differentiate you as well as your firm.

Rule Number Two: Buck the system. Some of the most successful law firms are the ones that operate differently and offer something unique. One of our firm’s most unique features is how we have organized our staff, particularly with a focus on specialization. Even though the firm is relatively small, we are able to handle volume projects with extremely high efficiency in part because of our unique staff model. Initially, we faced great resistance – none of us had actually ever seen or heard of a law firm taking this approach, let alone a boutique intellectual property law firm. Then, even once we had decided on our approach, we had to invest a significant amount of our time and effort into making it successful. Now, we offer something unique and highly advantageous – something that makes our clients see us as more than just another firm. You can’t get that if you simply follow the conventional approach to law firm management.

Rule Number Three:Foster debate at all levels. All through the presidential campaign last year, when I kept hearing Obama talk about Lincoln and his team of rivals, I couldn’t help but feel that Obama stole our idea! Having diverse views, especially in management of a new law firm, is a strength. While lawyers sometimes love to argue a bit too much (sometimes even more than politicians), you must strive to make such arguments become discussions and debates, not emotionally heated fights. It may be difficult at first, but ignore your lawyer instincts and listen. Your goal should be to make the best decisions for the firm – not to win arguments. At the same time, do not ignore your internal sense and logic. Find a healthy balance between using your head and controlling your instincts.

Rule Number Four: Don’t trivialize your abilities and accomplishments. Assuming you actually take the plunge and have even modest success, you will have accomplished so much in a short time. Anyone who starts a firm is comprised of tough fabric – don’t forget that. If doubt starts to creep in, and you find yourself wanting to accept the most conservative solutions, think back to the giant leap you took at the outset. You didn’t start the firm because it was a safe bet or conservative choice. You started it because you had a vision and you were not afraid of failure – so long as you took the chance to try and reach it. The majority of new businesses fail; so if you are successful, take pride and confidence – and wear them well.

Rule Number Five: Stay active in firm management. In the early stages of starting your firm, management will just about suck the life out of you. Because of this, there is a tendency to push the management tasks aside and solely concentrate on the legal work. Do not fall into this trap. Resist the temptation and find a middle ground. Think of ways to stay active in the firm. Interact with the staff, attorneys and even your partners. Not only will that make the management tasks feel more bearable, it will also give you the opportunity to strengthen the bonds of your firm. In our firm, at least one partner
attends a weekly meeting with the staff to stay current and involved in office issues. The partners also meet every week to brainstorm, plan and resolve office, personnel and client issues.

In the end, there is no cookbook approach for making a successful law firm. But at the same time, I don’t mean to say that following your own path will always lead to the best result. You have to hone in on the ability to know when to listen to the advice of those who have gone before you. And yes, sometimes that means listening to the status quo – sometimes. I’ll let you know when I get to that point.


John Russell is a partner in the Portland firm of Alleman, Hall, McCoy, Russell & Tuttle.

© 2009 John Russell

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