Jonathan Letzring: I wanted to work on things where I make the decisions. (John Disney/Daily Report)
Many big firm lawyers dream of having their own shop but are leery of taking the leap.
Jonathan Letzring has gone solo with a safety net, leaving the security of a steady paycheck as a King & Spalding associate to affiliate with employment boutique Hall, Arbery, Gilligan, Roberts & Shanlever as counsel.
“It’s a way to build a practice but with some level of security,” he said. “It’s hard to just open the doors and wait for the phone to ring.”
As counsel, Letzring is not salaried but is working on cases for Hall Arbery while bringing in his own. With a wife who is a full-time homemaker and two young children, one in private school, he wanted a steady pipeline of work while he was getting started. “They’re busy and need an extra hand,” he said.
A lot of big firm lawyers are intimidated about opening their own shop. “They have the itch but can’t take the plunge,” said Letzring, who started working with the nine-lawyer firm in December. “What I’ve realized is you don’t have to be totally on your own. I want to have other lawyers around to bounce ideas off and for the camaraderie.”
Warren “Wit” Hall, Hall Arbery’s managing partner, said he’s known Letzring since the latter was a summer associate at Alston & Bird. “I knew it was only a matter of time before our paths would cross again,” Hall said, adding that Letzring’s business litigation experience is a good complement for his firm’s employment practice.
Hall had a similar entrepreneurial itch when he left Alston & Bird, where he’d been a partner, to launch a solo firm in spring 2008. He partnered with two other employment lawyers, W. Christopher Arbery, a partner at Hunton & Williams, and Matthew Gilligan, a partner at Alston & Bird, in 2010, forming Hall, Arbery & Gilligan.
The firm’s clients are mostly local, Hall said, ranging from small businesses to several of Atlanta’s largest companies, which he declined to name.
It became Hall, Arbery, Gilligan, Roberts & Shanlever in January when David Roberts and Rebecca Shanlever joined as name partners. Both have well-established careers as employment lawyers. Roberts had been in solo practice at his own firm, The Roberts Firm, since 2005 and before that worked at Greenberg Traurig and other large firms. Shanlever was a partner in the labor and employment practice at Troutman Sanders.
Letzring’s path has been a bit different. He started at Alston & Bird in 2005 after clerking for Judge Phyllis Kravitch of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, but left after nine months to take a job clerking for another federal judge, Timothy Batten Sr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
Letzring said he’d always wanted to clerk for a federal district court, so when Batten was confirmed, he applied for the job. He ended up clerking for Batten for five years. “I did not expect to stay that long, but Judge Batten was really good to work for,” he said. “I got to work on really interesting cases.”
He returned to private practice as an associate at King & Spalding in May 2011, but he had the itch to go solo.
“I wanted to work on things where I make the decisions, where I have control over the matters and also have an opportunity to build a practice—and where the rates are such that you can actually do work for your friends,” Letzring said, adding that he left King & Spalding on good terms.
Letzring’s experience working on a rare plaintiffs’ case at King & Spalding solidified his desire to have his own practice. In November, the firm won a $72.8 million arbitration award for the inventor of the Nerf dart gun, Lonnie Johnson, in a royalty dispute with Hasbro. Johnson, who also invented the Super Soaker water gun, contended that Hasbro underpaid his royalties for the Nerf line of toys based on his invention for five years.
Because it was a plaintiffs’ contingency case, the matter was leanly staffed, with just Letzring and a King & Spalding partner, Ben Easterlin, initially. Letzring was able to take on far more responsibility than is typical for a big firm associate: taking depositions, arguing motions and then serving as second chair for the arbitration.
Letzring said getting to work on the Nerf case was a bit of a fluke. He received an email from a case coordinator asking him to help Easterlin with a presentation but did not know the particulars. “I just got lucky,” he said. “My role expanded from that point on.”
There are still young lawyers at big firms such as King & Spalding who aspire to make equity partner, Letzring said, but it’s a difficult and uncertain goal because partnership-track associates do not have much control over their work.
“At a big firm, you could be an expert at, say, product liability. Six months later the firm could bring in two lateral partners from a New York firm with that expertise—after you spent all those years developing your expertise—and your hope of being an equity partner just vanished,” Letzring explained.
A big firm associate also might work on only three or four cases at a time, if that, because the matters are so large. “If you get stuck working on just one case and you don’t like it, you could lose three years of your career,” Letzring said.
Letzring estimated he’s already worked on 25 matters since joining Hall Arbery in December. “I’m pushing myself outside my comfort zone,” he said.
Letzring said he’s enjoying the leeway to choose his own cases. “I feel I can do what I want to do,” he said. “I can set my rate at a rate that midsize businesses and people can afford.” His rate, between $250 and $300, is significantly lower than the $500 he billed at King & Spalding.
For the first time, Letzring is deciding the payment arrangements and looking at bills to clients. “I feel like I’m getting my hands dirty with real law now,” he said.
Letzring said he didn’t have any cases lined up when he left King & Spalding. Referrals from family, friends and colleagues have led to work, plus the cases he’s working on for Hall Arbery. He’s serving as outside general counsel for a family-owned Florida hotel chain and representing a small business owner in a dispute with a former employee over noncompetition and nonsolicitation agreements.
Letzring, a competitive tennis player, said tennis is becoming a great way to develop clients now that he’s operating on a smaller scale. A recent doubles partner in his Ultimate Tennis league turned out to be the president of a staffing company, he said. “That’s a conversation that would have gone nowhere before because they couldn’t have afforded the rates” at King & Spalding.
“I’m working hard now trying to build a practice,” Letzring said, “but long-term I think the ability to control my schedule is greater in this environment than at a big firm.”