Jeffrey M. Kimmel, the managing partner of Salenger, Sack, Kimmel & Bavaro, spoke to the New York Law Journal about the advantages and challenges of being a small to midsize law firm in New York. He said the most innovative thing the plaintiff’s firm has done has been to hire retired defense lawyers as of counsel to gain a different perspective.
Firm Name: Salenger, Sack, Kimmel & Bavaro
Firm Leader: Jeffrey M. Kimmel, managing partner
Head Count: 11 attorneys, 40 staff
Locations: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island (Woodbury)
Practice Areas: Personal injury, labor law, medical malpractice, employment discrimination
Governance structure and compensation model: We are a partnership with equity partners, non-equity partners and associates. Compensation to non-equity partners and associates consists of salary, bonus and a percentage of the business generated. Non-equity partners also share in a percentage of the profits of the firm.
Do you offer alternative fee arrangements?: No
Q: What do you view as the two biggest opportunities for your firm, and what are the two biggest threats?
A: Our biggest opportunity was recognizing that we are a business. Law school doesn’t teach you that. We practice law, but we’re running a business. It’s a whole different mind-set. For us, that’s meant creating an organizational structure with detailed job descriptions for every position. We hired a human resources consultant who created an employee handbook, organizes team building events and adds a general air of professionalism to the firm. Career coaching and personal development training is available to everyone. An IT department was hired to maximize our infrastructure, case management software and create metrics to track the weekly, monthly and annual efficiencies of our attorneys: cases signed up, caseload numbers, average time from intake to settlement, income generated per referring attorney, income generated by our attorneys, and the list goes on. We hired a public relations person to help us harness and capitalize on the tremendous power of social media. While we don’t advertise, our business approach has provided a clearer view of the power and influence of direct marketing. We have established relationships with some direct marketers in our field, who happen to be genius business people. They have referred us high end, significant, complicated matters that require our reputation, experience and trial expertise to prosecute successfully and maximize the value of cases. It’s a win for us, for them and, most importantly, for the clients. Finally, our increased efficiencies have allowed us to seamlessly expand into new areas. For example, we recently absorbed a solo practitioner’s employment discrimination practice. With the increase in wage/hours claims and the skyrocketing number of sexual harassment claims in the #MeToo environment, we’ve created an entire department to address those cases.
Second opportunity: Our next big opportunity was fully embracing social media. It has allowed us to reach a portion of the population that never even knew we existed. We have an entire team devoted solely to social media postings across various platforms, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter. This accessibility has dramatically increased our communication with current clients, former clients and potential clients. We now understand the importance of branding, staying relevant, keeping current and moving forward. We can express our passion for the profession and speak to that passion both personally and professionally. Through social media, we celebrate wins and successes, educate the public on safety issues, and show that our firm doesn’t just consist of lawyers; it consists of people who don’t always wear suits, have real lives, different personalities and love to have fun. It’s free exposure to reinforce our branding on a consistent basis.
Big threat one: Our biggest threat is not viewing the firm as a business. Our caseload has tripled in the last five years. Without proper management, supervision and guidance, the firm could not have handled that growth. Many solos are great lawyers and tremendous rainmakers, but what happens when the practice grows? Failing to recognize the importance of a solid yet flexible infrastructure and the need for adequate staff and support required to manage growth will destroy the business. Why do you think so many solos burn out? There are only so many hours in a day for one person. We are laser focused on generating more clients, but just as focused on growing the infrastructure in an efficient way to balance the operation.
Big threat two: Another threat to the business is failing to properly train and nurture the growth and maturity of our attorneys. We see it as our job to empower each lawyer to think like a solo. They must view the firm as if it’s their business. Each attorney manages a team. As a manager, it’s their responsibility to manage, supervise, discipline and run their teams. We encourage them to develop a personal style and embrace it. We want them to be themselves and own who they are. In the end, their success is our success. Everyone can win with the right mind-set. Our goal is continued success for us and for those around us. There is no shortage of those in need, and with the right relationships and back-office operations, we separate ourselves from other firms and remain leaders in the field.
Q: The legal market is so competitive now—what trends do you see, and has anything, including alternative service providers, altered your approach? Is your chief competition other mid-market firms, or is your firm competing against big firms for the same work?
A: Every firm develops and forms its own unique culture, which attracts different workers and clientele. There’s plenty of business out there. I don’t really view other firms as competition. I have great friends in other plaintiffs personal injury firms, and I truly enjoy seeing them succeed. As a result, some of those firms have become referral sources for us; they send us cases that, perhaps, are too time-consuming or expensive for them to pursue.
Attracting and retaining young lawyers: Our practice attracts young lawyers who see an opportunity for personal growth and financial reward. The idea of doubling your salary with one big referral is enticing, even to millennials! Our attorneys carry caseloads of 80-120 cases. They handle all varieties of cases and help all kinds of people seeking justice for injuries stemming from the negligence of others. It’s exciting, it’s rewarding, and it can pay extremely well. In our business model, we’ve created a platform that allows young attorneys to second chair and participate in trials conducted by the partners. We are extremely supportive, financially and otherwise, in promoting our lawyers within the industry and in their social circles, whether legal or non-legal, in an effort to expand their networks and obtain more business. So many young lawyers base their value on their last success, which at times can leave them feeling defeated. We teach that despite wins or losses, you must own your success in your mind first; only then can you make better decisions and deliver your best performance with confidence for your client. Not every case will be a winner for whatever reason, but if an attorney cultivates the relationship with the client, they cultivate a relationship for life. When our client’s cases end, we always assure them that we are here to assist them with all their future legal needs. This is what grows a long-term, sustainable business where current clients refer people to the firm based on the relationships formed and the trust created. Our lawyers know: Educate your client, and you will have a client for life.
Q: Does your firm employ any nonlawyer professionals in high-level positions (e.g. COO, business development officer, chief strategy officer, etc.)? If so, why is it advantageous to have a nonlawyer in that role? If not, have you considered hiring any?
A: We don’t have a nonlawyer in a high-level position at this time. As a graduate of the Wharton Business School, I’m fortunate to be able to combine my skill sets as both a trial lawyer and entrepreneur.
Q: What would you say is the most innovative thing your firm has done recently, whether it be technology advancements, internal operations, how you work with clients, etc.?
A: In the last two years, we’ve taken on several “of counsel” attorneys. We see value in some of the talent that has recently retired. We hired several high-profile former insurance defense attorneys to review cases for us and prepare for trials. Gaining the perspective of the defense view of our cases has given us insight never before possible. These attorneys educate us on how decisions are generally made and what strategies are generally utilized on the defense side. It’s made us better plaintiffs lawyers and better trial lawyers.
Q: Does your firm have a succession plan in place? If so, what challenges do you face in trying to execute that plan? If you don’t currently have a plan, is it an issue your firm is thinking about?
A: We have a succession plan. The founding partners of our firm, Marvin Salenger and Bob Sack, instilled many of these principles in me and Joe Bavaro, my partner. They helped us grow into great lawyers and allowed us to be ourselves along the way. They focused on what we do best and put us in positions to thrive personally and for the firm. Building on the solid foundation they laid, we intend to do the same for our current attorneys and staff. It would be good business.