Can’t stand your big law gig anymore? Before you jump ship to build your own firm from scratch, check out these tips shared by two leaders from Chicago law firm Walker Wilcox Matousek. Attorney Bill Bila and COO Robert Marks arrived at the Moscone Center this morning to kick off a series of panels for the American Bar Association’s annual conference. The pair shared lessons they learned from the sweat and tears of growing a firm from eight founding attorneys (all formerly from Lord Bissell & Brook) to more than 40 in five years. Turns out, the devil really is in the details.
Don’t just build an “anti-firm.”
Bila said he and his seven co-founding partners ditched all the things they didn’t like about their past firm, sometimes without thinking through the consequences. One example: they didn’t like Lord Bissell’s strict reporting system, which made it tough for a partner to assign work to any associate outside those that directly reported to him or her. “We found that when we tossed it out, out went too much mentoring,” Bila said. Now, the firm allows lawyers to freely work with others, but with certain people responsible for mentoring.
Draw up a detailed vision about what the firm will look like in five to 10 years.
Bila said the partners agreed on certain big picture ideas, such as a focus on insurance industry clients, and a culture defined by a “no jerk” rule. He wished they’d asked some more specific questions, like: How big should this firm get? What cities should we be in? “We’re still grappling with some of those issues five years later,” Bila said.
Draft a detailed start-up budget.
No guess work. Instead, cite exactly how much the telephone system and computers will cost. “That exercise gave our partners comfort in writing the check and making the leap,” Bill said, adding that the firm got rid of personal guarantees – which were small to begin with – within the first six months of the launch.
If you want to motivate partners to cross-sell, don’t throw money at them.
Bila said early on the firm distributed 80 percent of profits per head. That didn’t do much for promoting cross-selling and cooperation, he said. Now, an improved compensation system has partners filling out a “report card,” where each details at least three cross-selling efforts and shows successes, among a host of other things. Lawyers are busy, Bila said, but “the report card causes more stop-and-think.”
“Man Plans and God Laughs.” (One of their Power Point titles.)
Balance all the detailed planning with flexibility for opportunities. Marks said he encourages lawyers at Walker Wilcox to understand the forces that affect their clients. “Have that business conversation with clients,” he said, because the strategies they’re cooking up now will impact your firm, often a year or more down the road.