James Fisher II, a cofounder of Atlanta-based FisherBroyles, hates it when people refer to his firm as a “virtual” law firm. ” ‘Virtual’ suggests “ unreal,” ‘ he says. “Rather, we think of ourselves as the amazon.com of the law firm world.”
Fisher has a point. The firm, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary this year, says it’s the oldest and largest of a handful of firms that have done away with brick-and-mortar office space, associates, and swaths of support staff for a “cloud-commuting” model, where most partners work from home. FisherBroyles’s 75 partners, mostly big-firm alums, can be hired at rates below those of a first-year associate at a top-tier firm. Nine in ten bill out at $300 an hour or less.
A model like this should be a game changer. But its growth, and that of a smaller rival, 35-lawyer Virtual Law Partners in San Francisco, was slow till recent years. Both were hampered by tiny budgets, limited marketing, and, until recently, a dearth of eligible and willing recruits.
FisherBroyles’s lack of a recognizable brand remains an obstacle. Mention the firm’s name to most Am Law 200 lawyers, and you’ll get a blank stare. Still, the recession has been “like hitting us with a power surge,” says Broyles, who adds that the market has been flooded with a glut of partners who have been priced out of big firms. However, only lawyers with seven-plus years at an Am Law 200 firm or comparable in-house experience need apply. (Cofounder Kevin Broyles, like several others at the firm, is a Harvard Law School grad; Fisher came from Baker & McKenzie.)
The eat-what-you-kill environment can also be daunting. While partners take home 85 percent of billings, plus origination credit, there’s no guaranteed salary. “Eighty-five percent of nothing is still nothing,” notes FisherBroyles’s James Meadows, a former Alston & Bird outsourcing partner.
But FisherBroyles is clearly on an upswing. Revenue has quintupled since 2008. (The firm declined to disclose revenues.) Partner head count tripled during the same time period. Fisher expects the firm to surpass 100 lawyers by early next year. Clients—including American Express Company, LexisNexis Group, and Delta Air Lines Inc., among others—appear to be receptive. Lou Hedrick Jones, general counsel at Tempur-Pedic International Inc., saw her legal bills for outsourcing matters drop by two-thirds after she tapped Meadows on a referral. “You get a fantastic expert at a bargain price,” Jones says.
Though its practices range from corporate and litigation to IP, tax, and employment, the firm is best known in the technology, outsourcing, and financial services niches. In October, for example, the firm was tapped by Atlanta automation start-up Pardot LLC in its $96 million acquisition by software provider ExactTarget Inc.
Meanwhile, new models that do away with partnership entirely are pushing into FisherBroyles’s virtual niche. Axiom Law, which notes in its Web site disclaimer that it is “not a law firm,” is increasingly competing for high-end work; it was tapped last year by Vodafone Group plc to manage its trademark portfolio (“Disruptive Innovation,” June). And two-year-old Clearspire Law Company, with 35 lawyers, is expected to grow to 75–100 by the end of 2013, according to cofounder Bryce Arrowood. Unlike FisherBroyles and VLP, these firms are happy to take on big-law refugees who either can’t or won’t drum up their own business. “We’ve been inundated with resumes,” Arrowood says. Axiom and Clearspire have put investor funds to work underwriting brand development and slick Web sites that emphasize their differences from traditional firms. Arrowood says he and Mark Cohen, managing director of Clearspire’s legal unit, have met with 145 top in-house counsel in just the past year.
Fisher says he is not concerned about the competition. “We believe if we get to 100 lawyers, it will be easier to get to 200. And then 400. The market is still wide open.”