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Lawrence Robbins remembers how excited Post-It notes made him three years ago. The appellate litigator had just left the D.C. office of what was then Mayer, Brown & Platt to start Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck & Untereiner. He pulled a package of yellow pads from the new firm’s stocked supply cabinet and thought, “I own this.” Many lawyers who have started their own practices after a big-firm partnership understand that feeling. While partners at big firms technically own the contents of their supply closets, too, “when you’re one of 11 or 12 people, that sense of ownership is bound to be more palpable,” says Robbins. At a time when law firms are growing rapidly in size and global ambition, some of their partners and associates are shying away, leaving the mega-firms to start their own practices to give clients more personal service and to reap the benefits of self-employment. “One of the real joys of practicing law is having your own clients who call you first and rely on you,” says Michael Ross, one of three partners at the Aegis Law Group. Last year, former Marriott International Inc. in-house counsel Ross, along with Williams & Connolly senior associates Oliver Garcia and Paul Rauser, started Aegis, a litigation, internal investigations, and white collar criminal defense firm. (Ross worked at Williams & Connolly before moving to Marriott.) Although they say blue-chip Williams & Connolly was a great place to practice law, they wanted to have more responsibility and less pressure to bill. At your own firm, “there’s a direct correlation between how hard you work and how much money you make, which is often not the way it works at a big law firm,” says Ross. In fact, Ross says, the Aegis lawyers are already making more money than when they were at Williams & Connolly, where senior associates make nearly $250,000 per year. Although the lower overhead small firms enjoy can help keep profit margins high, Robbins says it’s not about the money. “It’s not something that can be measured in dollars and cents,” says Robbins, whose firm now numbers 10 attorneys. “It’s just the sense that you did it yourself.” But lawyers who leave the safety of a large partnership caution that starting a new firm is not all fun and games. “I think I felt like, for the first time, I was walking on a tightrope without a net below me,” says Scott Blake Harris, managing partner of D.C. telecom and litigation firm Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis. At a big firm, “you knew whatever happened to your individual practice, you were in an institution.” Harris and partners William Wiltshire and Mark Grannis left the D.C. office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher about six years ago because they were running into too many client conflicts. “I don’t really miss anything about being at a big firm,” says Harris, whose firm now has about 20 lawyers. “It’s a question of taste and of value, both for lawyers and for clients.” Amy Owen and Deborah Cochran, who started their four-lawyer firm, Cochran & Owen, in January, wanted to know they were their own bosses. “It wasn’t that we didn’t enjoy the big firm,” says Owen. “But it’s part of the American dream to have your own business.” Owen, an employment lawyer, and Cochran, an estate-planning attorney, met when they were partners in the Tysons Corner, Va., office of Miles & Stockbridge. Even then they talked about starting their own firm, but they put the idea on hold when Owen went to Alexandria’s Richards McGettigan Reilly & West in 2000 and Cochran took a partnership in the Northern Virginia office of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey in 2001. But the two, both mothers of four, “had the entrepreneurial bug,” says Cochran. ON YOUR OWN By going solo, lawyers certainly take a risk, but they still can use their big-firm résumés to sell themselves to clients. Solo Carolyn Elefant runs the Web site Myshingle.com, a news and advice site for small firm and solo practitioners. She recalls that a few years ago “people just thought it was crazy” to leave big law for small or solo practice. But, Elefant says, these lawyers have been able to cash in on the cachet of the firm they left behind. “If I had a quick piece of contract work, I would feel better giving it to someone with big-firm experience,” she says. “It’s just another credential they have.” Ross of the Aegis Law Group says he understands that he and his partners won’t be getting the giant bet-the-firm cases that their former firm is known for handling. But the Williams & Connolly pedigree has certainly been a selling point. “We don’t feel compelled to take dog-bite cases,” Ross says. Indeed, he and his partners count Marriott among their clients, as well as Merrill Lynch & Co. Patrick Romain, assistant general counsel of Merrill Lynch, says that with Aegis, he feels like he’s getting “big-firm associates and partners at small-firm prices.” Romain adds that the trio’s Williams & Connolly experience was a major selling point. With former big-firm lawyers, “you’re probably getting somebody who went through a rigorous vetting process,” he says. “However, that will never trump whether you feel comfortable with the lawyer.” Harris, Wiltshire and Robbins, Russell have managed to parlay their big-firm experience into small-firm business as well. Harris, Wiltshire lawyers have as clients the News Corp., AT&T Wireless, Nextel Communications Inc., and the Microsoft Corp. And Robbins, Russell attorneys have argued five Supreme Court cases in the past three years, winning four of them. But Robbins says he had his share of sleepless nights when his firm first opened its doors. “You have no idea where the work’s going to come from,” he says. In fact, the firm’s biggest client in its first year was completely new, one Robbins says many of them had never even heard of: Napster, the online music company, which was at the time embroiled in court battles over copyright infringement. The firm represented Napster in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, fighting a lower court ruling to block the operation of its song-swapping software. Big-firm refugees also say there’s always a struggle to overcome a prospective client’s doubts about the firm’s size. “The biggest challenge is convincing them you can deliver,” says Stuart Anolik, a former Greenberg Traurig partner who started his firm, the Law Offices of Stuart H. Anolik, in January. But Anolik, whose firm does corporate, securities, and tax work, says he has other firms he can call on when a client’s demands exceed his capacity. He sells this to anxious general counsel. “It’s a matter of building relationships,” he says. DOWNSIDE TO BIG LAW Keeping a firm small is also a boon to its partners and clients: Decisions can be made more quickly, and the partners have more wiggle room on everything from billing rates to billable hours. Anolik, for example, wanted “freedom and independence,” and can now offer clients billing arrangements other than the standard big law firm hourly rates. “We’re not slaves to billing hours,” he says. And Cochran remembers the big-law days of drawn out meetings and protracted negotiations to settle even the simplest questions. Now, she says, “our partner meetings can take 20 seconds.” Harris says a small firm also has more flexibility than its big-firm counterparts. “You can try a new business model, you can try a new approach to a problem to see how it works,” he says. “It’s the difference between changing direction in a battleship and changing direction in a speedboat.” While these lawyers may spend less time making decisions and wading through big-law bureaucracy, they are certainly working more, particularly in the first months, when they are getting their businesses up and running. “Anyone at a new firm would be lying to you if they told you they weren’t working more,” says Cochran. “A lot of things you take for granted at a big firm.” Gary Orseck says one of the smartest things Robbins, Russell did before opening was to hire a top-notch office manager. Lawyers coming from a big firm with armies of support staff often have no clue how to handle time sheets, send out the bills, or even order office supplies. “They think things just appear,” Orseck says. But some small firms can’t afford support staff. The lawyers of Cochran & Owen and the Aegis Law Group have been putting in time on the weekends doing the administrative tasks that they never had to think about before. “If you’re in on the weekends and you’re not making any more money, it’s a morale issue,” Ross says. But “we know the money’s going straight in our pockets.” And, adds Anolik, there’s nothing like doing it yourself. “It’s a hell of a lot of fun,” he says.

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