By Allison Peryea
I like owning things: guacamole, cats, musty sundresses from the used clothing shop on Broadway. But I never really wanted to own a law firm. During the recession, when jobless young lawyers were hanging their own shingles, I marveled (and shuddered) at the idea of not just practicing law but also running a law practice. I was always vaguely aware that “making partner” in a law firm was a benchmark in a law-firm career, but I was always too busy trying not to lose my job to care much about that sort of thing.
So when the shareholders at my law firm extended me an invitation to become an owner, I hesitated. The thought of becoming a business owner troubled my inner commitment-phobe. But eventually I signed on, mostly out of curiosity and also because the thought of having people call me their boss sounded hilarious.
It’s been a little over a year since I became a firm owner, and I have picked up on a few things after wearing a shareholder’s hat for about 13 months. Here is a list of some of the stuff I have figured out:
1. The Art of Procrastination. Part of the difficulty of owning a law firm is that you are still expected do lawyer work on top of your new “owner” tasks. After almost a decade of practicing law, it is hard not to prioritize billable work. Accordingly, shareholder projects seem to get pushed to the bottom of the to-do list, next to “schedule tooth extraction” and “reconnect with bully from middle school.” As an associate, I always wondered why it took the owners so long to make decisions: it turns out because they are too damn busy to care whether you can take off Monday to go to the waterslide park.
2. Family Ties. Becoming an owner at a small law firm is like formally adopting a family of unrelated people who at the end of the day are all hanging out together for a paycheck. Co-owning a law firm is like entering into a sexless marriage designed primarily for financial purposes with people who are generally a lot older than you. At times I feel like I am the inexperienced parent serving as a repository for employee complaints about things like slow computers and commute times. At other times I feel like a proud mom when someone wins a motion or a paralegal we hire on my recommendation turns out to be as great as I promised.
3. Out of Control. Owning a business means having to rely on other people a lot more than before. This year I actually had to hire an accountant to do my taxes like a grown up, after I tried to do it myself online and started having nightmares about the IRS coming after me. It also means making decisions with less time and information than what feels adequate. Suddenly I am voting on whether to change phone-service providers based on a 10-page estimate and input from our accounting person, while at the same time having a full day of billable work to confront. If you dwell on a decision, it doesn’t usually end up being made (see “procrastination,” above). So enjoy your new phone system, Whitney.
4. Role Playing. There are three owners in my firm, and our shared ownership works because we have delegated tasks based on what we do best (or at least do better than the others). Terry handles the financial matters, Stephan deals with human resources, and I see to communications and marketing and deciding what stuff to buy on the firm credit card. (Seriously, one of the first tasks I took on as a new owner was to buy some furniture for the office common spaces. Before the place was creepily empty like a pilot’s crash pad.) Part of my duties include working with staff to schedule firm events, which had me recently planning a baby shower for a staff member. (Protip: the selection of blue party decorations at Target is disappointing.)
5. Too Legit. As a young-ish woman, I have spent my entire career fighting for credibility. Having my name on the door instantly gives people the false impression that I am now fully qualified to handle their legal matters. (“You doubt my legal acumen, Sir? Yeah, well, maybe you should check out whose unpronounceable last name is up there on that wall with those other two unpronounceable last names.”)
6. Technological Difficulties. When you own a small firm, sometimes you have to take on projects outside of your comfort zone because, quite frankly, there is nobody else more qualified to take it on. Accordingly, though I am not especially known for my computer savvy, I became the shareholder in charge of our technological needs. This involved me teaching myself rudimentary HTML code to update our firm website. I also had to work with our IT guy to buy and install new computers. I thought it was all taken care of but then he kept pestering me by email about boring stuff like “server back-up” and “virus protection.” God, just leave me alone.
7. Who’s the Boss? They make poorly rated movies about bad bosses. I don’t want my employees thinking that I should be featured in one of them. So sometimes I wonder, when Marison is excavating a soup spoon from my week-old bowl of tomato-basil before running the dishwasher, whether I am too messy, or needy, or generally annoying. But then I think about those bosses who dwell on whether or not people like them, like that dude from The Office, and I settle the hell down and go on pretending everyone wants to be my friend.
8. Marketing Wizardry. One thing I have learned from running a law practice is that a big part of success does not actually involve practicing law. It’s getting your name and your reputation as a competent and effective group of lawyers out in the community. It’s promptly calling back potential clients, and having a glass of wine with a possible referral source, and giving presentations about the Condominium Act. It’s taking pictures and finding new cases to update your Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s exhausting and fun, and endless. But remember that at the end of the day, you won’t be able to successfully “sell” your firm in the long term if you don’t believe in what you are selling.
9. All For One. The biggest change I have noted in the past year is how I view myself as a contributor to the firm. It’s not just about making my slice of pie as big as possible—it’s about making the pie as big as possible (and possibly adding whipped cream). The firm has taken on a separate level of importance that it didn’t have when I was an associate. Everything any single attorney says or does reflects on the whole law firm, either positively or negatively. Every hour billed isn’t just to meet my own billable hour goals, but also to keep the firm afloat and to pay to hire someone to design a new website for us who isn’t me.
The Verdict: Though it has involved a lot more meetings, I don’t have any regrets about joining the firm as an owner. But I would suggest that any person extended an offer of ownership step back, like I did, and take a close look at the “family” you will be “marrying into” before you sign on the dotted line. This isn’t the kind of relationship you can simply terminate over a text message, unless perhaps you are very passive-aggressive and the ownership agreement allows for that sort of thing.
Allison Peryea is a shareholder attorney at Leahy Fjelstad Peryea, a boutique law firm in downtown Seattle that primarily serves community association clients. Her practice focuses on covenant enforcement and dispute resolution. She is a longtime humor writer with a background in journalism and cat ownership. You can reach her by email at [email protected]