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Life in a very small firm — particularly a firm run by two spouses out of their home — brings with it rare joys and unique challenges. The beginning of our fourth year of practice is a great time to step back and reflect on the lessons we’ve learned that might be useful to other lawyers thinking about adopting a similar model. Goldstein & Howe is a “boutique.” As an upshot of our small size and the focus of our business development efforts, we practice almost exclusively before the U.S. Supreme Court. Besides the two of us, we have an associate who started in the fall. We also have two law clerks: One graduated last semester and is waiting to start his clerkship, and the other is a second-year student. We also have two externs from American University’s Washington College of Law, where Tom was a student and which is just down the street (in Washington, D.C.) And a full-time assistant started last month. So we won’t be cracking the Am Law 100 anytime soon. But that’s still rapid growth. Just four months ago, it was just the two of us researching, writing, cite-checking, serving and filing the briefs with late-night runs to the Court. Once you add in a few more students from our summer program, we look more and more like a real law firm. We love the work, and we love working together. But the logistics and economics of developing a law firm are not easy. The workload and the income can be unpredictable. Keeping up with the business side of the firm can be daunting. When we were associates at Jones Day and Steptoe & Johnson, we didn’t have to worry about the firm’s pension, health insurance, electronic research, phone service, Internet access or 20 other things. And the firm can overwhelm your personal life. It’s not for everyone. Having said all that, we would do it again in a heartbeat. We’ve developed the Supreme Court practice and the firm at our own pace and on our own terms. Here are some of the things that we have learned along the way: Stake out a niche, and keep your name out there. Early on, we labeled ourselves “the only law firm devoted principally to litigation before the Supreme Court.” Admittedly, it’s easier for a handful of us to keep that focus than the 1,000-plus lawyers of Mayer Brown. But that specialty has made all the difference. By concentrating just on Supreme Court work, we constantly learn about both the big picture (how best to shape arguments and what kinds of cases the Court would hear) and the minutiae (e.g., the Court’s filing procedures and how to take advantage of its schedule). Inevitably, we come across opportunities to get involved in cases at the Court. The very fact that we are specialists helps us to be better known. There simply aren’t very many people who do this kind of work. So, when something happens at the Court, reporters often call us. Appearing in press reports helps to get our name out there. We’ve also seen the benefit of being proactive. We widely distribute materials about the Court’s docket and its voting patterns. We paid a design firm to create a fancy Web site ( www.goldsteinhowe.com) and to get us listed in search engines. Then we joined the “blog” craze with SCOTUSblog ( www.goldsteinhowe.com/blog), where we write every day about what’s happening at the Court. Now we’re launching “discussion boards” ( boards.goldsteinhowe.com) where anyone can contribute to exchanges about leading cases and other Supreme Court issues. None of this takes a great deal of our time because we’re already so focused on the Court and because our externs (who don’t cost us a thing) do great work on them. But none of this is unique to the Supreme Court. Someone could become the specialist on the judges of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Or a special area of patent law. Find a niche, and make it yours. Invest your time, especially at the beginning. Think of it as an investment that will pay off down the road. Our firm technically started three years ago, but we unwittingly have been laying the groundwork since law school. As an NPR intern, Tom began collecting the statistics he still distributes for free today. After clerking, he aggressively looked for pro bono cert prospects on the theory that, with no real experience, the best thing he had to offer would-be clients was his time. In January, for example, Tom argued on behalf of a federal prisoner who was pro se in the 7th Circuit, which wrote an opinion acknowledging a 5-2 circuit split over procedures under 28 U.S.C. � 2255. Other members of the Supreme Court Bar contacted Erick Clay, too, but they had to go through all kinds of hurdles at their firms. By then, we were already retained. We’ve also logged many hundreds of hours in various cert and merits proceedings in a capital case from Tennessee. While the case has often been frustrating, it has also been incredibly challenging and fulfilling. We’ll never forget calling our co-counsel to let them know — 36 hours before our client’s scheduled execution — that the Supreme Court had entered a stay. The pro bono strategy worked. The sum total at stake in six of Tom’s arguments was $1,500. But he now has eight arguments under his belt — nothing to sneeze at. And, building on that experience, now we have several cases worth more than $100 million each. We still start every day looking for conflicts, and almost half of our work is pro bono. Today’s pro bono case can lead to tomorrow’s paying client, whether through contacts or experience. We’re not giving away state secrets here: Big firms often use pro bono work to provide associates with hands-on training not always available in expensive and complex litigation. Wherever you are, your best shot at getting better and more interesting work is to offer to take something on for free. Hire with care, and be flexible. If things go well, at some point you are going to want to bring in other people. Large firms have some margin for error in hiring lawyers and staff — a few people with subpar intellects, work ethics or personalities aren’t the end of the world. But at a small firm, a lapse in hiring judgment can be disastrous. Our strategy relies on personal recommendations from people we trust. We wouldn’t have had a summer associate at all last year except that an assistant solicitor general called us about an opportunity we shouldn’t miss. He was right. The summer associate introduced us to the judicial clerk we hired as a full-time associate. Our AU law clerk basically picked the externs from people she knew and trusted. We can’t afford to pay big-firm rates, but the work is interesting and we try to make up the difference in lifestyle. Our associate isn’t allowed to bill more than 1,300 hours a year on paying cases. He and some of the others prefer to work at home. That’s fine for us, too. (We don’t actually have space for everyone.) Make the most of contacts and people you know. The legal community is shockingly small. We’re generally hired by other lawyers, and those decisions are often made based on personal ties and reputations. Business comes from the strangest places, from our former classmates to our parents’ friends. Some good experiences we’ve had have brought us the Holy Grail of business development — repeat referrals. Surprisingly, being small isn’t a disadvantage in getting hired. Most Supreme Court cases can be briefed by one or two people. It’s individuals that get hired more than the firms they work for. Better still, we have the advantage that we’re not perceived as a threat to take away the client’s business from a firm that might be considering bringing us into a case. We’ve also regularly taken second billing to some superlawyers who have the principal role — a great strategy for two reasons. First, they have great skills that we’ve tried to emulate. Second, they get cases with real money at stake that pay the bills. On an even more practical level, we benefited from the experiences of friends who set up their own firms before us. You wouldn’t write a motion from scratch if a colleague had already covered that ground, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel in submitting, for example, your D.C. incorporation papers either. That’s how we found our accountant, courier service and the companies that handle our insurance and pension plans. Maximize technology. Our practice has to be small physically. We couldn’t do a document production to save our lives. Thankfully, Supreme Court cases are perfectly suited to our circumstances. They aren’t document-intensive; in fact, the relevant part of the record will almost always fit in one banker’s box. We also have no space for a library. But small firms really need only the books in their specialty. There are incredible resources online. We also can walk down the street to AU’s library if we need anything else. Technology makes everything easier. E-mail, voicemail, cell phones, and conference calls let us keep the show on the road from almost anywhere. (And, as far as we know, our clients happy.) We can travel longer or take last-minute e-saver trips to our favorite hotel in Miami. The downside of being in a small firm, of course, is that you’re going to be working on those vacations. Take advantage of freedom and flexibility. Starting your own firm doesn’t necessarily mean never having to say you’re sorry. But the odds are much better that you will be able to say yes to interesting opportunities. We worked heavily on the 2000 election cases, and, as a result, Tom second-chaired Bush v. Gore. Amy has worked with students at American University’s Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic on cases naming the United States and U.S. officials as defendants. A small firm also can be “creative” in its fee arrangements. We don’t need approval from a finance committee. We frequently offer our paying clients several different fee arrangements to match the economics of the case. These can include not only traditional flat fees and hourly rates, but also contingent fees and varied success bonuses. The fact that a small firm is willing to take on greater risk can give it a competitive advantage. Building a small firm is also about embracing change and learning from new experiences. We think we’re getting the hang of running the business and making the most of the resources we have. But there are always new challenges. The newest addition to the firm, Nina Grace Howe-Goldstein, was born Jan. 25. She’ll be the biggest challenge yet. Tom Goldstein and Amy Howe, both 32 years old, joined forces in 1999 to form Goldstein & Howe. In the last two terms, the firm was counsel in 13 cases decided on the merits. This term, it is lead counsel in three merits cases.

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