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Barry Coburn and David Schertler, two former Department of Justice prosecutors, established D.C.’s Coburn & Schertler in 1996. At the start, the firm, which focuses on criminal and civil litigation, was made up of only the two founders. Today, the firm has grown to nine lawyers, including a third partner, Danny Onorato. Coburn and Schertler sat down alternately with Legal Times Metro editor Joel Chineson to answer “Five Questions” about their practice. Below are excerpts of their conversations, edited for reasons of space and clarity. Why did you decide to start your own practice? Barry Coburn: Before I started my own practice, I was at Covington & Burling. Before we were Coburn & Schertler, I was at a different small firm. My interest in starting my own practice related to a series of priorities that I had and continue to have. The main thing that I love about being a lawyer is trying cases — criminal, civil, any kind of case. I love being in trial. I love the challenge of it, the excitement, the inherent fascination of what the process is all about. My sense was that I would be able to do a lot more of that if I were part of a practice that I would be involved in starting, as opposed to joining an existing entity. That had a lot to do with it. In addition, I think as a matter of personality and personal preference, I’m probably a lot better-suited to being in a small entrepreneurial start-up entity than being in a large and more-established firm. There is more freedom in what cases you can take. There’s more freedom in terms of exercising our own priorities. We have relatively low overhead, which frees us up to do certain kinds of work that a lot of larger, more-established firms can’t do. We’ve got nine lawyers, so it’s not like we’re practicing law in a vacuum. Practicing in a small entity is a little more like being part of a family. I like the smaller, familylike atmosphere. David Schertler: I’ve actually known Barry since when we both started in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice back in 1982. I then stayed for 14 years with the department as a DOJ prosecutor and as an assistant United States attorney here in the District. Barry, in the meantime, had left the office and had gone into private practice. For me, it was a decision, after 14 years in the government, that I needed to move on and try something new and something different, and this seemed to be the most attractive opportunity. I had the opportunity to join someone who I respected and who was a close friend, and branch out in terms of the practice of law — do criminal defense work, of course, but branch out into other areas as well. The opportunity to create your own work of art or your own business and to control your destiny — I think they were both attractive aspects of starting the practice with Barry. Tell us about your clients. Schertler: Being a small firm, we represent primarily individuals and some small companies and businesses as well. The bread and butter of our practice continues to be white collar criminal defense work. That work spans a wide variety of clients, but in the white collar area some of them tend to come from upper social and economic classes and people who have gotten in one form of criminal trouble or another. On the civil side, we represent people from a wider strata. We take on certain contingency cases that we feel have merit, whether it’s personal injury, medical malpractice, or otherwise. But we also wind up representing some companies as defense counsel in civil suits as well. Coburn: Our practice is split between civil and criminal, with perhaps a slightly greater concentration of criminal. It varies over time. It shifts back and forth. We represent a number of institutions, and we represent a lot of individuals. There are people in all walks of life. We do a lot of what is referred to as white collar criminal work. We do a lot of other kinds of criminal work. We represent a lot of individuals in a kind of wide range of miscellaneous civil cases — some small, some large, some relatively simple, some factually extremely complex. We do only litigation, and it’s litigation with a trial-type emphasis. We try a lot of cases. In terms of the percentage of our cases that go to trial, I think, would be essentially higher than a lot of other litigation firms. We do local criminal work. We do violent felonies. We do a wide spectrum of fraud cases. We do domestic relations work. We do commercial civil work. It’s a true general litigation practice, but I think we have a particular emphasis with respect to criminal law. Where do you find your clients? Coburn: An overwhelming percentage of our work comes from referrals from other lawyers. Some of it comes from referrals from prior or existing clients. And some of it comes from other sources. But a very high percentage of it comes from referrals from other lawyers. I don’t think we do that much active marketing. We try to stay in touch with people we know, but we’d do that anyway because they tend to be our friends. We really have not been that proactive in terms of marketing ourselves. We belong to various organizations. I tend to be active in the D.C. Bar. I’ve spoken at a number of American Bar Association meetings. I’ve just been admitted to the American College of Trial Lawyers, and I’m hoping to become active in that organization. We don’t do that kind of thing that much as a matter of marketing. It’s more that it’s important to do for the community and for our intrinsic value and interest. Schertler: I don’t think there’s one magic formula to developing business and getting new clients. I think it focuses on relationships, primarily with other lawyers in this area and in other areas. Based on our experience both in government and out of government, we have established a lot of relationships with people we regard both as professional colleagues and as friends. And I think what we try to do is provide high-quality legal representation. I’ve always felt that if you focus on providing high-quality legal representation and you get good results, people will want to send you cases. The primary motivation in terms of referring a case to another lawyer is knowing that lawyer can do the job. I think that if people know that you can do the work and do it well, and you have a relationship with someone through the variety of cases that we’ve handled or through our past government experience, that combination leads to new cases and new clients. How do you measure business success? Coburn: We have no designated benchmarks. When Dave and I started this firm, neither of us was particularly sophisticated with respect to those measures, and I don’t know that we’ve become that much more sophisticated over time. We have no minimum billing requirements for any of the lawyers here. We all work very hard, but there are no benchmarks that people have to meet. And I don’t know that we’ve ever come up with a formula for measuring whether we’re successful or whether a particular year is a good year. We just try to do the best we can and work as much as we can. Schertler: The measure of success is just being able to pay the rent every month. As we’ve grown from two lawyers — Barry and myself — to now nine lawyers, the business has become more complicated. Yet we don’t have any kind of set billing hours. We leave it to the individual, whether it be a partner or associate, to take the time that’s necessary to complete the work and to do it in a high-quality way. That being said, I think what we’ve tried to do is make sure that we have enough clients that are being billed in an hourly rate and who are paying the legal fees to be able to sustain all the costs of the practice — the overhead, the payroll, the partners’ draws as well. But what we’ve always tried to do is have a handful of good contingency cases as well, and then not feel like we have to rely on getting some kind of judgment or settlement in a contingency case, and that gives us just a little more flexibility in terms of how we handle it. We strive for, roughly, 75 percent hourly, 25 percent contingency. Coburn: I think since we started, it has been a process of steady growth. And I think particularly in the last year or so, our revenue has grown at a more rapid rate. What challenges to your practice do you foresee in the future? Schertler: I think the biggest challenge is to get to a size and a level of growth where we would accomplish what I would like to see the firm become — and that’s somewhere between 20 and 30 lawyers and a law firm that is able to cross several different practice areas. I always believe that criminal defense will be a big part of our practice and our bread and butter and what we’re known for best. But I would like to expand the type of civil cases that we handle, both on the plaintiff side and on the defense side. More recently, in the last five or six years, we developed a domestic relations practice. We have several attorneys in the firm now who are domestic relations attorneys, who are familiar with the area, who have tried cases in the District, Virginia, and Maryland, and I’d like to see that part of our practice expand as well. So, the biggest challenge I see in the future is trying to attain that goal. And I always say that it’s like a work in progress. I don’t know where we’ll be five or 10 years from now, but I have some concept of where I’d like to be. Coburn: I think every lawyer, particularly every litigator, lives in fear of making a substantive mistake in any particular case. And I think that’s a challenge that we faced up until this point and will face throughout the remainder of our practice. And I think we’re all attuned to making sure that this doesn’t happen. We’re pleased with the quality of the work that we’re doing, but we see it as a continual process of trying to get better. Every time we try a case we get better. Every time we try a case, we learn from our opponents, we learn from the judge, we learn from other lawyers that we might idly watch in the courtroom. Every day that goes by, every telephone conversation, every meeting we have, we learn something from it. And we try to use it in order to get better in everything we do. But aside from that, I don’t think there’s one particular concern that I have in mind. Things are going well financially, and I don’t feel actively concerned about that. I love trying cases and I get to do it. Schertler: We like to describe ourselves as trial attorneys. Whether it’s in criminal defense, or civil, or domestic relations, we’re constantly in court and constantly going to trial. And I would say that everybody in the firm is involved in three or four trials each year. So we like the idea that we’re able to get in court and to continue what we did as prosecutors, which is develop our trial skills. Coburn: They talk about the rise of ADR, and certainly we’ve been a part of that. We’ve participated in those procedures in a wide variety of cases, and they seem to be extremely valuable. But some cases will always have to be tried. They’ll always have to be decided by some neutral fact-finder. And that’s what I think we particularly like to be a part of.

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