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Associates at major law firms often think about getting together and starting their own practices, but such pipe dreams frequently evaporate upon the comforting and certain arrival of the next healthy paycheck. Exceptions to the rule are Kenneth P. Thompson, 36, Douglas Holden Wigdor, 34, and Scott Browning Gilly, 35, who until recently were associates in the labor and employment department of the New York office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. At the close of business last Friday, the three had completed their first week as new tenants in the Empire State Building and founding partners of Thompson, Wigdor & Gilly. The new partners began talking about starting their own firm over lunches back in November 2001, with the conversation growing more earnest over the months on exactly how they would concentrate on employment law, criminal trial work, sports and entertainment law and civil rights litigation, and how they might work their contacts to guarantee financial sustenance for at least the next five years. “I’m happy to hear it, it’s a wonderful thing to have your own firm,” said Judge Arthur D. Spatt of the Eastern District of New York, for whom Wigdor once clerked. Earlier in his own career, Judge Spatt was a partner in a small private practice and would often tell his young clerk just what those days meant to him. “You control your destiny, you’re selective, no one is going to tell you that you have to handle some particular case. “You have to work six days a week?” the judge added. “Okay, you work six days a week, but you’re working for yourself, and for your partners.” On the other hand, said a partner at an international firm in New York who asked to remain anonymous, “There is security at the top-tier firms, and strong salaries. You’re not guaranteed anything when you’re starting up your own shop. It’s a great risk. And there is fear of the unknown — which adds to the excitement of it.” The partner once considered taking such a plunge. Partners dream, too, he noted. But he ultimately backed out because, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a lawyer.” Luckily for Thompson, Wigdor and Gilly, they were groomed to know the business of law as associates at Morgan Lewis. “As senior lawyers [at Morgan Lewis], we were fortunate to have been integrated very heavily in management responsibilities as well as actual practice responsibilities,” said Gilly, who earned his J.D. at Catholic University School of Law in Washington, D.C. “The firm put us out as primary contacts for the clients, and we handled the relationships pretty much autonomously, keeping various partners up to date. “We had first and second-chair trial experience, and we also dealt with the clients in billing and collection matters,” Gilly added. “In addition, we were involved in [client] business plans.” In the months following their initial discussions, the three partners established a budget, which they declined to disclose, and a five-year plan that incorporated: capital formation, banking and accounting relationships; office space allowing for adding three associate attorneys in the near future, along with necessary support staff; integrated wireless telephone and computer systems; software to provide secure and efficient record-keeping for the initial needs of three partners and an office manager; office supplies, furniture, and a basic law library; lease negotiations on midtown Manhattan office space that would be mutually convenient to their New York City, Long Island and New Jersey clients; and Web site design. Wigdor said that the firm’s Web site, www.twglawyers.com, “was the single most important decision. It’s the blueprint, really, for our practice.” Some things came easily enough. To set up the new firm’s insurance program, said Wigdor, also a graduate of Catholic University law school, the partners consulted the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Certain other things, from the quotidian to the emotional, proved to be more difficult. For instance, said Thompson, a graduate of New York University School of Law, “You don’t just go out and rent space in midtown Manhattan. It’s just not that easy.” With help from a real estate practitioner friend of Wigdor’s, the partners were drilled in the practicalities of negotiating with a commercial landlord. The result: a 57th-floor suite with a conference room taking in views of both rivers and the Chrysler Building. Nor is the whole business of committing to partnership a snap. “It’s similar to a marriage, actually, with emotional overtones,” said Judge Spatt. Each of the three partners is married, so they know what that entails. A colleague of Thompson’s — Robert McNamara Jr., the former assistant general counsel at the U.S. Treasury Department — is not surprised by his friend’s pluck. In 1993, Thompson was a member of the Treasury Department’s Waco Administrative Review, which conducted the investigation ordered by President Bill Clinton of the raid on the Texas-based Branch Davidian compound. Thompson later became an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District, and delivered a blistering opening prosecution statement in the Abner Louima police brutality trial that CNN Television said contained “graphic detail that at times made jurors wince.” “Ken’s mother is a former New York police officer, you know,” said McNamara, now a partner at the Washington, D.C. firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. “He’s gutsy. A long time ago, he was a guy committed to making the world a better place to live.” Frank Coonelly, the general labor counsel to the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, likewise had high marks for Gilly, with whom he worked closely when both were at Morgan Lewis during the baseball strike of 1994-95. “It takes a tremendous amount of courage and fortitude to start your own practice in today’s economy,” said Coonelly of Gilly. “But I believe there’s a market for smaller boutique firms that can represent clients at billable rates below what the large firms charge.” Fundamentally, Thompson, Wigdor and Gilly all say that success depends on the quality of their “marriage.” “You have to make sure you’re careful who you go into partnership with, and we’ve all taken a lot of time and effort on that,” said Gilly. “One of our strengths is that we all have different views. It’s been a great education to work through our issues, it’s given us greater comfort with one another — to advocate our [competing] views, and then come to a judgment.” It was also important to all three men to leave Morgan Lewis in a comfortable manner, which they did. “These are friends of ours,” said Michael A. Curley, a Morgan Lewis partner and head of the firm’s labor and employment department. “We wish them well in their endeavor, and hope their training here will help ensure their success.” If hardship duty is a measure of success, then last Sunday — when the city was deluged by its heaviest snowfall in seven years — was a stellar launch for Thompson, Wigdor & Gilly. All three partners schlepped into the office to meet with a client who had no other available time. Wigdor was philosophical. “We’re working for ourselves now,” he said. “So the more we put into it, the more we get out of it.” To which Thompson added, “And the more we bring home to our wives.”

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