In the shadow of an economy that hasn't spared the legal industry as it spirals ever downward, David Newdorf decided to leave his government job and go into business for himself.
This month, in the face of some colleagues' worries, Newdorf left the San Francisco City Attorney’s office to start his own practice — Newdorf Legal. Over coffee, the litigation specialist explained why he decided to leave behind the public sector, and its pension. (Full disclosure: Many, many moons ago, Newdorf was a reporter for The Recorder, which operates this here blog.)
"A lot of people say it might be bad timing," said Newdorf, who has both defended public employees and led suits against large businesses since joining the city attorney's office in 2001.
But, he said, the business of commercial litigation can actually work counter to the economic cycle, since lawyers often need to step in only when deals go bad. And in uncertain times, small practices that charge lower hourly rates than the giant San Francisco firms might look more practical to clients, he said.
Since he was hired by former City Attorney Louise Renne, Newdorf estimates he has led more than 100 cases for San Francisco, including the cop-vs.-civilian hullaballoo known as Fajitagate and a class action brought by strip-searched female prisoners.
Though Newdorf said it's too early to name any clients, he expects to continue to represent public entities, such as police officers and smaller cities that need to hire out their legal work. He said he hopes that the network of lawyer contacts he's established over 14 years of working in the city will generate some leads.
Newdorf said he's also sought the advice of the handful of his peers who left the office to enter small or solo practices. One was Brian Gearinger, who started up a two-person firm with another former deputy several years ago, but has been leading his own Gearinger Law Group since Jan. 1. Newdorf said he sought out Gearinger, and others, for advice on how to start his business, but was still nervous to make the jump. Most of his former colleagues have migrated to the U.S. attorney's office or a large firm, rather than go the entrepreneurial route, he said. Then there were also the "golden handcuffs" — the promise of a hefty pension payout if he stayed on longer.
"It gets harder and harder [to leave] the closer you get to full pension benefits," he said. Knowing that he didn't want to stay for the length of time that route required — roughly 13 more years — Newdorf said he figured it was better to leave before the option began looking more attractive. It also fit a certain pattern in his life: He had spent seven years working as a journalist and seven more, after law school, working for O'Melveny & Myers. After seven years in the city attorney's office, he said, it seemed like the right time.
Though Newdorf admittedly has to front his own expenses for a while before his practice starts paying for itself, his surroundings have at least proven an upgrade: He's set up shop amidst San Francisco's downtown lawyerville, on the 18th floor of the historic Mills Building.
"Part of being a good lawyer is taking calculated risks," he said. "I view this as a calculated risk."
— Evan Hill