Creative Writing – The Day We Fired the Partners

THE DAY WE FIRED THE PARTNERS

W. James Jonas III

November 2005

Friday’s announcement by our managing partner confirmed what secretaries had been telling us for weeks.  Effective last week, all associates were receiving a 20% pay cut.  Firm finances were not in good shape.  The assurances that “all partners are making substantial sacrifices, too” seemed shallow if not outright false.  It was time to adjourn to the backyard of the nearest associate for adult beverages.

That was two years ago.  I can still pull up on my laptop a document twelve associates created less than 48 hours after that Friday announcement:

PROMISES TO CLIENTS:

1. You will be able to understand us.  We will not call you on a cell phone, and our responses will be specific.

2.  You will never doubt that your project is top priority.  We will not call you from a ranch, lake house, coast condo, or some other recreational locale that makes you wonder who is doing your work.

3.  Your work will be delivered on the agreed date.  We will not blame “some green associate” or a secretary for a delay.

4.  You will see a complete accounting of the work done for you.

5.  You will want to consider us a part of your team.  Where appropriate, we will send you our work in draft and, when requested, work out of your office.

6.  You will never be called by a supervising lawyer.  The lawyer working on your project is your point of contact.

PROMISES TO OURSELVES:

1.  All lawyers in this firm are equal.

2.  We will never blame each other for a project failure or failed opportunity.

3.  We will never seek to give individual credit to one or a group of lawyers in the firm for a project success.

4.  We will not discuss moving in-house with a client.

5.  We will be honest with each other.

6.  We will meet each week to discuss all aspects of our work together.

That is what we had, as an intellectual foundation, to make a bold move that weekend.  We fired the partners.  Perhaps it is a strange concept, but consider this:

*There were 10 of them (partners) and 12 of us (associates).

*They owed a bunch of money to the local bank for firm operations.  We did not.

*They were the ones who had made all of the business decisions that put the firm in the current shape.

*They were the ones who signed the current office lease which included their oversized offices.

*They were the ones who had poisoned their own reputations by silly gossip, drunkenness, and  sloth at various corporate outings, hunting lodges, and golf courses.

*They were the ones who promised us that this was a solid firm with caring mentors.

Our Friday afternoon discussion required us to go only this far to realize that these somewhat nice people needed to be sent on their way. The question was how to do it.

Uniquely, partners can be fired in place.  However, this required that we act as a group, simultaneously, effective immediately, and in writing with all future discussions going to a single lawyer who was not one of the twelve.

How would the partners react?  At first, we began talking as if we cared.  Then we realized it does not matter.  They have been fired.

We all had our own cell phones, home computers and laptops (only partners had such things  provided by the firm).  None of us were accustomed to having support staff help (they were too busy on partner projects).  So the basics of administrative support were covered.

The firm decision to not pay for local bar dues for associates had given all of us the opportunity to establish individual accounts at the local law library for research.

We would be missing one paycheck, but given the retroactive reduction, difficult short term personal financial issues were on the horizon regardless.

Since all of us had access to our offices on the weekends and the few partners that came in to the office rarely stayed past 4 pm on Sunday and even more rarely walked the associate section of the office, the weekend exodus was easily accomplished.  By Sunday at 10 pm, all of our office doors were shut to hide the fact that all personal items were gone.

Designing the letter of resignation was a bit of a challenge until we agreed that less was more:

“Dear Partners of the Firm:

We wish you well in your future endeavors.

Your employment with us ended at midnight.”

While there was some apprehension about the future, we were confident in the value of the services we had been providing to clients.  We also agreed that all the message to our former (and hopefully future) clients would be simple.  “We are no longer working for the firm, but here is how to reach us if you desire our services.  The rates previously charged to you for our work will remain the same.  We have also established six promises to clients that will be our guiding professional principles in serving you, and, if you request, we will share a copy of these promises with you.”

Who would handle the calls from the old firm?  Our law school buddy at Legal Aid was ideal.  It was a stretch, but we did fit the definition of individuals under economic hardship.  He would handle all calls, threats, and pleas from the old firm.

Our final step in preparation was establishing answers to questions our clients might ask.  What is the new firm’s name? Corporate Counsel, LLC.  Where is your office? Our office will be in the downtown area, but for the first 90 days, we will be working remotely (out of our homes) and, at your request, we will work on site with your legal department.

As you might guess, the partners reacted in the most childish and insecure manner possible.  This made our thoughtful professional approach all the more appealing to clients.  Within five days, each member of Corporate Counsel, LLC had, at least, one client project.

The Promises to Clients were a huge hit.  There was never modification of these principles notwithstanding countless public relations experts and friendly advisors who suggested that the principles had “too negative a tone.”  All of those well intentioned people had ignored the fact that we were saying nothing more than what a significant client base is thinking every day.  Also, we could not afford a re-print.

The Promises became Corporate Counsel’s best and only marketing material.  All other marketing efforts were done with face to face meetings and a proposed letter of engagement.

The Promises to Clients were featured in our first news story about Corporate Counsel LLC “Young Bucks Take the High Road.”

The Promises to Ourselves were never made public.  We all seemed to believe that this made the promises more secure, more steadfast, and less susceptible to situational ethics.  This remained true until we began efforts to sign an office lease.

Clients found appeal in our efforts to limit expenses by using their overnight  shipping account, copying documents for them at their business, and hand deliveries by the attorney doing the work, yet there was an expectation  that this new firm would be opening a downtown office.

Finding office space, we thought, would not be a challenge as we had little concern for image, no demands for parking spaces that could be realistically met (we did not need them unless there were 12 available), and our geographic demands were rather general (downtown near the courthouse).  The priority of equity was our biggest challenge; no one appeared to have space where twelve people could work together as equals.  Finally, we discovered one option that appeared to accomplish our goal, and immediately canceled our weekly meeting to allow a few of us to view the space.

When we informed the landlord we wanted the lease to be signed by all of our lawyers, he laughed and outlined his final position.  He was not going to modify his form to allow twelve signers when half of them had no net worth.  Further, he knew that two of us had substantial family money, and that was the only reason he was going to consider the lease at all.  He would let six of us sign.  Six of us were present, which included the two with families the landlord favored, so we decided to sign the lease immediately and tell the others that only six of us signed because we were about to lose the opportunity.

The party opening our office was a tribute to youth and economy.  Food and liquor were plentiful; all of the serving and staffing of the event was done by our lawyers.  Some of the client guests might have found the affair a bit quaint, but the past 90 days had established their confidence in our work and our responsiveness.  When a group of guests were leaving, one General Counsel commented to the three in charge of making sure there was a safe driver in each departing group  “Great party – next year you three can be in charge of my office party.  Please consider what we talked about.”

Next week there was huge excitement as one of our largest clients offered us an opportunity to support them in an acquisition that was highly confidential and otherwise being accomplished by in-house lawyers.  These were the types of acquisitions the old firm often groused about (“they could use us – why are they doing all of that in-house”).  But, we offered a unique service – associate rates without partner egos or blabber mouths.  Six of us were ideal for this project, but the rest lacked any skill even closely related to the area.  While the estimated duration of the project was uncertain, the agreement to pay our hourly fees within five days of receipt of billing was a comfort to our cash flow.  While those six attorneys would work everyday at the client’s headquarters, we would keep the other businesses running out of our new offices.

Six empty offices might seem grim, so we kept their office doors open, their lights on, and placed a placard on their desk that could be read from the hall saying “_________ has temporarily relocated on site for important client projects.”   These signs became a bit of a status symbol in our office, because it did suggest that they had unique expertise and were bringing in meaningful fees (when you are located on-site, General Counsels rarely question the number of hours you are billing).  Additionally, other clients made note of these signs and began asking for on-site projects, too.

We celebrated the first year of success with happy clients and all obligations paid (to include the balances on our individual credit cards).  While some of us were angry that a major on-site project had been missed because one member of our team refused follow-up on a deal with a prospective client that he believed had ties to certain ideological groups, we were generally happy and did not dwell on the fact that he was to blame.  Had I only known at that time, that our blaming him had taken our list of Promises to Ourselves, that had not been broken, down to one:  All lawyers in this firm are equal.  It was clear, however, that some were more equal than others.

It took a few months, but what follows is of little surprise.  In-house opportunities, sufficient confidence to practice solo, and partner offers from national firms emptied our downtown office quickly.  Each of us is far further along than we were when this adventure began.

I have agreed to do a presentation at the Partner Retreat of my new firm.  The topic is “Promises to Clients.”

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