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Why lawyers want to go solo: It’s ‘very difficult’ to change the culture in a law firm

Nearly 40% of lawyers want to launch their own firms, new research showed, but those who have taken the plunge warn it is “not for the faint of heart”.

“Do I wake up at three in the morning and go ‘goodness, I have launched a law firm’ – yes I do,” said Natasha Harrison, managing partner of London disputes firm Pallas Partners, which launched in February as a breakaway from US litigation law firm Boies Schiller Flexner.

“Setting up a new firm is not for the faint of heart. Pursuing a vision from a sheet of paper to reality is not easy, ”said Jonathan Bloom, a former Jones Day partner who launched his own firm, Avonhurst, in 2019.

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Despite the challenges of going solo, it is a widespread aspiration among lawyers – 39% of 200 law firm partners surveyed by Censuswide on behalf of litigation funder Harbor said setting up their own firm is a current career ambition.

Marc Keidan, who launched disputes firm Keidan Harrison in 2020, having previously been a founding partner of litigation boutique Cooke, Young and Keidan in 2009, said he was not surprised so many lawyers want to strike out by themselves.

“The freedom and independence and ability to do interesting and diverse work, without significant risks of conflicts, are big attractions,” he said.

For litigators, launching a boutique can be especially attractive as it avoids the conflicts that come with being part of a large law firm with a long list of major clients who are off-limits as opponents in disputes.

Graham Huntley, who co-founded Signature Litigation in 2012, said escaping the constraints of big law firms was another motivation for lawyers to launch boutiques.

There was, he said, “a recognition by many partners, perhaps relatively late in professional life, that the quality of working experience can be replicated and often improved outside big law”.

“In a sense, theirs was a reaction to the perception of increasing constraints within ever-growing international and full-service law firms,” ​​he added.

For others, it is a chance to set the strategy and cultures of their businesses that motivates them to make the jump.

Harrison was heir apparent at Boies Schiller, but stepped back from her managing partner role in September 2021, before leaving with a 26-strong team to set up Pallas Partners earlier this year.

“I can really set the culture and values. It is very difficult to change those in an existing firm, ”she said.

Meanwhile, Avonhurst’s Bloom said his plan for a law firm that also provided clients with political and economic advice was initially greeted with skepticism in some quarters.

“I had many people tell me the vision of Avonhurst would have massive challenges ahead,” he said.

As well as lawyers, the firm counts among its advisers the likes of Pippa Malmgren, the ex-UBS deputy head of strategy and a former adviser to US President George W Bush, and Gavin Barwell, ex-chief of staff to UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

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“One global pandemic and an international war later, and the market recognizes the importance of having access to policymakers and decision-makers as well as the relevance of having top-tier lawyers that understand the needs of clients,” he added.

Huntley said that launching a small, niche firm gives partners “a unique and sometimes once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something that was different.

“Doing it with a reliable group of like-minded colleagues is one of the best professional endeavors that a lawyer could want,” he added.

In addition to the stress of worrying about the profit and loss account, other challenges of going it alone include losing the infrastructure that a large law firm provides.

“I know more about financial systems than I ever want to know,” Harrison joked. “It’s not just about being a good lawyer; there is a lot more to it than that. ”

Despite the challenges, Keidan said co-founding two law firms had been “the right move for me”, and encouraged other lawyers to take similar steps.

“Very few who make the move ever look back with regret,” he said.

Echoing his thoughts, Harrison said setting up her own firm “has been the most exciting step in my career.

“It is challenging, but if you have a very clear vision for what you want to achieve and a very clear strategy to execute, it can be done,” she said.

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To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email James Booth

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