Robin Hensley Raising the Bar Robin Hensley, Raising the Bar (Photo: John Disney / ALM)

In life, you never know who your partners are going to be. Your future husband or wife could be at the end of the neighborhood bar or sitting in front of you during a lecture on data privacy. Your future law partner could be your opponent in a high-stakes litigation trial.

That’s the origin story of Caplan Cobb LLP—former adversaries who developed a mutual respect and ultimately formed a strong partnership.

Hanging your own shingle isn’t something to be undertaken lightly. After the conclusion of the complex business suit that brought them together, Mike Caplan and James Cobb went out to lunch and indulged their entrepreneurial side. Although both were very happy at their respective firms—Caplan was at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, and Cobb was at Rogers & Hardin—in the back of their minds, they both harbored a desire to take control of their future. “We flirted with the idea for a couple years,” recalls Cobb. “For a variety of reasons, it was never the right time—until it was.”

In 2014, after researching the Atlanta legal market, they decided it could support a boutique firm focused on complex civil litigation and appeals. The duo saw Atlanta’s need for a boutique firm with unique competitive advantages, driven in part by hiring top talent and investing in technology while keeping overhead low. Caplan and Cobb have also focused on handling cases that their colleagues at larger firms could not—perhaps because of conflicts of interest or the client’s desire for a different type of fee arrangement.

Caplan and Cobb had similar resumes: They both did well at great law schools, clerked for federal judges and practiced at highly respected firms. But they also felt they would fill gaps for each other. “Mike’s business background was an asset. In addition to holding a law degree, he has an MBA. He thinks of things from more of the finance side than I do,” explains Cobb, who also says his partner’s significant plaintiff-side experience rounds out the defense background he had developed.

Family obligations played a pivotal role, as well, Cobb adds. During the founding, he had three young children, and a fourth has since arrived. “It’s counterintuitive, but it seemed less risky to start the firm when the kids were young than if I did it when they were teenagers,” he says. “If things didn’t work out, they wouldn’t remember not taking vacations. Teenagers would never forget.”

Fortunately, since Day One, it has worked out very well. The firm—which consisted of only Caplan and Cobb when they started in 2014—has grown to eight full-time lawyers and four staff members. That is due in part to the fact that Caplan and Cobb had their priorities in order: Practice law and get the help they needed to run the firm. Lawyers are naturally aware of their value. After all, the hourly rate hasn’t gone away, and they couldn’t bill the time it took to do administrative tasks. One of the firm’s best—and earliest—hires was its executive director, Jennifer Cochran. Cobb says she’s a crucial part of the firm: “She can handle personnel issues, talk to our landlord, oversee accounting, manage vendor relations—all things that freed us up to focus on practicing law and bringing in new business.”

Cobb believes hiring is one of the most difficult and consequential parts of running your own firm. As a premier boutique firm, the partners looked beyond the standard resume of great law schools, clerkships and big-name firms (although those are all very important). They also need lawyers with humanity.

“We are very careful about the people we bring in. Although we’ve grown, we are still a small pond, so even a tiny pebble can cause significant waves,” Cobb says. A new team member—whether or not he or she holds a law degree—needs to get along with co-workers. The proof is in the pudding: In 2017, Caplan Cobb was one of only three law firms listed among the 100 best places to work in Atlanta by the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Making the firm attractive to potential employees is another aspect of leadership. Cobb clearly likes to practice law, and he looks for that love of practice when he hires lawyers. He wants them to take on interesting work and responsibilities to spread the fun around. “Some of our youngest lawyers have already argued in federal appellate courts,” he cheerfully shares. And they have a reason to continue to work hard: In the next 12 to 18 months, they expect to add more partners to the firm.

It’s all part of their strategy to build an identity and brand for their firm. “Very few firms survive the passing of the founding generation of lawyers. The firms that do are the ones that have built an identity and brand separate and apart from the individual lawyers,” Cobb says. He wants his firm to emulate the firms that trained him to be the lawyer he is now and to help grow the firm’s lawyers into a brand. When people think of Caplan Cobb, they will think of the founding partners as well as the firm as populated by great lawyers who deliver value and results to clients.

Robin Hensley’s column is based on her work as president of Raising the Bar and coaching lawyers in business development for more than 25 years. She is the author of “Raising the Bar: Legendary Rainmakers Share Their Business Development Secrets.”