: The Blawgraphy
Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Lessons From a Large-Firm Partner Who Set Up His Own Shop

Inspiring words from Mark P. Zimmett in American Lawyer: Lessons From a Large-Firm Partner Who Set Up His Own Shop

My firm is small. We max out at four associates, a law-student clerk and two secretaries. There are obvious — and not so obvious — differences from a large firm. One is administration. I do all of it: hiring professional and nonlegal staff, evaluating health care and pension plans, purchasing computer equipment, arranging for DSL service and reviewing every invoice to be paid. I also do less of it. I have few — virtually, no — administrative meetings. I have few computer runs and spreadsheets. QuickBooks provides me and my accountant with most of what we need. I don’t require nearly the amount of data that a large firm needs to manage lawyers in different cities and countries or even on different floors. My practice fits in 2,193 square feet; it’s all in my head and in front of my face.

Another difference — less conspicuous, but more significant — is my proprietary feeling for my practice. Late at night I have walked cartons of documents on a luggage carrier to the post office down the street, and I’ve spent early-morning hours at Kinko’s with an associate and a secretary (or, in a pinch, my wife) when our photocopier went on the blink and there was no time to arrange for our duplicating service to pick up. Not that this does not occasionally happen at a large firm. In the early ’80s, the late Walter Wriston, then the chairman of Citicorp, worked the photocopier one night during the Iran litigation. But that was a rare (and memorable) occurrence. Here it happens a bit more frequently, and when it does, it’s my job to see that the job gets done. My name is on the door.

Perhaps more surprising than the differences are the similarities, particularly in the work we do. Securities and financial litigation is a mainstay of our practice, including broker-dealer and shareholder derivative cases, claims for underwriter due diligence and litigation of such esoterica as credit derivatives and cross-currency interest rate swaps. And our small size has not deterred us from handling big cases, such as:

* A $115 million international aerospace arbitration with 37 witnesses and a warehouse full of documents;

* Four related hedge fund cases in New York and Delaware, one of which was a three-week jury trial;

* A six-year, 40-party state court lien law litigation, related AAA construction arbitration and bankruptcy; and

* A civil RICO trial in which we won a multimillion-dollar judgment for treble damages, attorney fees and 40 acres of East Hampton, title to which had been concealed through a Panamanian corporation and an offshore trust in Bermuda.

These are the same cases handled by large firms. I know that because they are my adversaries: Baker & McKenzie; Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; Debevoise & Plimpton; Dewey Ballantine; Hogan & Hartson; LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae; McDermott Will & Emery; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; and Williams & Connolly.

How can a small firm compete? Experience, flexible staffing, close supervision and technology are all important. My experience at Shearman & Sterling was invaluable. I trained on forged check, landlord-tenant and other cases that gave me a lot of trial experience and later graduated to larger and more complex matters, such as the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano (the Vatican bank scandal) and seizing assets from Nicaragua’s deposed president, Gen. Anastasio Somoza.

Via Susan Cartier Liebel’s excellent Build a Solo Practice Blog: You Can Jump From the Big Law Ship and Land in Profitable Waters

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