​Go your own way: The large law firm partners who leave to open their own practices

by |
Whether it stems from an entrepreneurial spirit, a desire to change the things that frustrate them about law firm life, having greater control over their practice, or the buzz of setting up something new, there is no shortage of former partners of large law firms who go on to open their own firms.
For the partners interviewed in the latest issue of Australasian Lawyer magazine, the desire to have a greater say in how their firms were run featured prominently in the decision to go out on their own. “[Partners in large firms] have the liability of a partner, but they don’t necessarily have the ability to manage or control the business that they are the proprietors of, and I think there’s a natural tension there,” says Yeldham Price O’Brien Lusk director Tim Price, a former partner at DLA Phillips Fox, as it then was. Greater flexibility and the ability to take on work without being limited by conflicts, which often arise in large firms, were also pros of creating a new firm in Price’s perspective.
Getting started
The process of starting a law firm may seem overwhelming to those just embarking on that journey. “There were obvious logistical challenges,” says Price. “Coming from a large law firm where you never have to think about turning off the lights at the end of the day, or how your computer works, or who decorated your office, and then actually having to do literally all of those things is an interesting change.”
But for those who have lived to tell the tale, it is not as difficult as expected. “At the end of the day, if you’ve got a laptop, a practising certificate and a suit, you can practise as a lawyer,” observes W Advisers principal Mark Wilson.
And for those practitioners who miss having other colleagues to consult and confer with in practice areas outside their own, Wilson advises forming connections with other boutique firms. “The boutique community is very vibrant, and by chatting [with lawyers in other boutique firms] you can recreate in a virtual way the same sorts of groups of expertise that you have in larger firms.”
Although he found the logistics of setting up a firm were relatively straightforward, Marque Lawyers managing partner Michael Bradley says putting the new firm’s philosophy into effect proved more difficult. “I think the biggest challenge in the early years for us was getting our own heads around the philosophy that we had decided to pursue,” he says.
“We made the decision when we started that we were going to reinvent everything,” Bradley recalls.
“As a matter of principle we agreed that every single decision we were going to make in how we were going to run our business, we would completely ignore the way things were done, the conventional wisdom, and just work it out for ourselves … that I think gave us a huge amount of freedom mentally to just be able to approach everything with a blank page.” Although Marque has adopted a number of conventional law firm practices, such as using similar computer systems, being prepared to explore every question afresh and work out the answer that suited the firm best was liberating and has produced great results for the firm, Bradley says.
Of course, the most daunting prospect of opening a firm is the uncertainty about whether clients will follow. “When you’re inside a large firm looking out, you really do wonder: if you don’t have that name… will anyone send you work?” Price says.
While almost all of his clients followed him to YPOL, Price says he was surprised by their response to the new firm. “What was refreshing and really interesting was that clients were extremely supportive, very interested, and in a sense appreciative that you were doing it because you were able to offer them the same sort of service that they were used to in terms of quality, but at a significantly better price and in a much more efficient and seemingly approachable way.”
Taking the plunge
Lawyers considering opening their own practices will often consider questions like where to open their offices, who to hire, what areas their firms will specialise in, and so on, but Bradley says there’s a more fundamental question that needs to be asked first: why do it?
“It’s easy to decide you hate what you’re doing and that you want to do something different, but if you don’t know what that thing is, then you’re not likely to end up much better off,” he says. “Not every new starter has succeeded; there are quite a few that haven’t … and I think it’s mostly because they didn’t work out what they were doing or why they were doing it.”
Once plans are laid, law firm founders emphasise that the move should not be delayed for too long.
“From the point of view of a person who is sitting in a large law firm today and thinking about ‘what do I do about my future?’, if they’re interested in backing themselves, then they ought to have a go, and it’s not as hard as they might think it is,” says Price. “My advice is that they should think seriously about it and they probably shouldn’t leave it too long … now that I’ve done it, I wish I’d done it earlier.”