A few years as partners in FisherBroyles sold Dallas lawyers Kelly Rittenberry Culhane and Grant Walsh on the concept of a low-overhead, high-tech firm staffed solely by partners who can charge clients associate-level rates.
But now Culhane and Walsh, and two Atlanta lawyers who also formerly worked at FisherBroyles, have opened Culhane Meadows with plans to refine FisherBroyles' nontraditional firm structure to emphasize more collaboration and cross-selling among partners.
"It's a desire for more true collaboration. FisherBroyles was challenged with how to process more than just a group of autonomous lawyers who share a website," says Walsh, a managing partner of Culhane Meadows. He says the new firm will encouragelawyers to develop multidisciplinary teams and practice groups and to pitch clients in groups.
James M. Fisher II, co-founder and managing partner of Atlanta-based FisherBroyles, says the formation of Culhane Meadows is proof his nearly 12-year-old firm's structure works.
"We've grown to a point where we are big enough and large enough to have a spinoff," Fisher says. "FisherBroyles is the only nationwide full-service cloud-based law firm in existence, and Culhane Meadows is trying to imitate what it's done."
FisherBroyles moved into the Texas market in 2008 with a Dallas office, and since then expanded into Austin and Houston, Fisher says. The firm currently has 11 lawyers in Texas, he says.
Fisher disputes Walsh's contention that his firm, now with 65 lawyers, doesn't stress collaboration among partners. "We disagree completely," he says.
However, Fisher and Walsh agree on the fundamentals of the nontraditional structure. At both firms, all lawyers are partners, neither firm has permanent offices, and neither has billable hour requirements. That structure allows the lawyers to bill at much lower rates than at a traditional firm.
"We just control the overhead environment. We make major investments in our technology and back office. We do not have the brick and mortar. . . . We don't have associates, and we don't have staff," Culhane says.
Walsh says most of the lawyers office at home, but many spend some time working at client offices. The firm has arranged for executive suite space if any lawyer wants to rent it, he says.
Walsh says the non-traditional firm model is cost effective. He says even though he is responsible for things such as correspondence, research, and supply-ordering — responsibilities handled by associates, law clerks or staff at traditional firms — he works many fewer hours than when he practiced at a traditional firm.
On May 31, Culhane, Walsh and Atlanta lawyers Heather Clauson Haughian and James Meadows formed Culhane Meadows with lawyers in Austin, Dallas, Atlanta and New York City. The firm moved into Washington, D.C., on July 8 and into Chicago on July 16. Of the firm's 23 lawyers, six are in Dallas and one in Austin, Culhane says, with 17 of them coming from FisherBroyles.
More expansion is on tap, with Houston as a "big target," Culhane, co-managing partner, says. She says the firm is in active discussions as well with a number of lawyers in Austin.
In addition to Culhane and Walsh, the Dallas lawyers include Jeffrey Crouch, Richard Grant, David Olson and Ryan Whitfill. Sheryl Kinlaw is based in Austin.
Culhane, who has big-firm experience from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Dallas and Austin prior to joining FisherBroyles, says clients like being able to hire partners at a rate comparable to what a third-year associate at a large firm would charge. Most of the partners in her firm charge "somewhere around the $300 mark."
She says Culhane Meadows partners are compensated based on the revenue they bring into the firm since overhead is so low. When a partner turns to others in the firm for assistance on a client matter, Culhane Meadows allows those lawyers to work out how the revenue is split.
Kellie Watts, vice president, counsel and corporate ethics officer at Plano-based Alliance Data Systems Corp., says she has hired Meadows for the past several years for IT-related contract work, and expects to continue to give him work at his new firm. Watts, who says she works from home in Kansas City, Mo., says she appreciates a firm that provides its lawyers the flexibility to work at home because it's cost-effective.
"It's not necessary to pay a big-shot lawyer from a big-shot firm $600 or $700 an hour when you can get the same service for $350 or $400 or less," Watts says.
Culhane Meadows' clients include RaceTrac Petroleum, RadioShack Corp., Tempur-Pedic, Aon Corp. Porex Corp., Fiserv and Paciugo Franchising.
Houston firm consultant William C. Cobb says a law firm organized like Culhane Meadows can work because technology allows lawyers to access the same data bases and discovery, and also because general counsel increasingly want to hire partners instead of associates, which is what Culhane Meadows offers.
Cobb says he's only heard of a few firms organized like Culhane Meadows, but notes that "the trend is there."