Rahul Patel and Grant Gaines dare to be different.
The co-founders of Patel Gaines, a small San Antonio real estate and litigation firm, are consciously ignoring long-held views of how to run a law firm. They offer clients 24/7 services without billing them for every call or question; they emphasize teamwork when working with clients; and at a time when many firms are cutting back, they have hired a large support staff so lawyers can devote more time to doing actual legal work.
“Whenever I see someone doing something, I try to do the opposite,” said Patel, the firm’s managing partner.
For a small firm trying to make money, these practices seem counterintuitive. But Patel and Gaines said their methods have resulted in a more efficient and cost-effective law firm. The firm’s revenue was in the $3 million range last year, and the two name partners said it’s been growing by 6 to 8 percent a year.
“They kind of have an edge to how they do things,” said Matthew Fossey, president and chief operating officer of Paradigm Tax Group of Dallas, whose company has been a Patel Gaines client since the firm was established in 2013. “They have an approach that’s a little bit different.”
Indeed, while many firms have reduced support staff, Patel and Gaines believe a firm can perform better with a high staff-to-lawyer ratio. The firm has five lawyers in San Antonio and one in Fort Worth, for a total of only six lawyers. Yet, it has 24 employees—or four support staff for every lawyer. Typically, firms have one or two support staff per lawyer.
Having more employees in support positions allows the firm’s attorneys to spend more time on legal work, Patel said. ”[In a more traditional scenario,] you spend so much time doing a lot of tasks, whether it’s copying … getting files pulled, initial research. We give associates law clerks. We give associates staff resources,” he said.
Patel recalls that when he was an associate, there were times when he would ask a legal assistant or secretary to help with a document or project, but his request got pushed to the bottom of the stack because they were busy working on documents for partners. That always frustrated him, because he was also doing work for firm clients, he said.
Gaines, senior litigation partner, said the firm succeeds in keeping its costs-per-client down because of the support. “Instead of having seven attorneys touch something, we have one or two attorneys touch something and three or four staff members,” he said.
Chicago-based law firm consultant Kent Zimmermann of Zeughauser Group said Patel and Gaines may be onto something. One of the keys to maintaining profitability, he said, is not overspending, while still getting the work done. Firms can achieve this goal by using nonlawyers for work that doesn’t need to be done by a lawyer.
“The aim is faster, cheaper, higher quality,” Zimmerman said. ”The market pressures apply to firms of all sizes and in all parts of the country, and this is an example of a small firm … trying to be innovative.”
Bill Cobb of Cobb Consulting in Houston agrees. He said 40 to 50 percent of what lawyers do can be done by a paraprofessional, and this is relevant in particular to the tax protest litigation performed by Patel Gaines.
Patel and Gaines first became acquainted when they both worked as law clerks and associates at Pulman, Cappuccio, Pullen, Benson & Jones in San Antonio. Patel left the firm in 2011 and joined Popp Hutcheson, a property tax firm in Austin. Patel said his new firm allowed him to live in San Antonio, and he and Gaines stayed in touch, having lunch about once a week. In May 2013, Patel left Popp Hutcheson and Gaines left Pulman Cappuccio and they formed Patel Gaines. The firm’s work is roughly one-third real estate transactions, one-third commercial and civil litigation, and one-third property tax litigation.
Patel Gaines has grown significantly since its founding—to the point where its employees are now packed in “like sardines,” Patel said. The firm is building a new 20,000-square foot building in San Antonio, and Patel expects the firm to move in June. It’s a far cry from the firm’s current 2,100-square-foot space, and even farther from the 10-by-10-foot space Patel and Gaines used when they launched the firm.
Focusing on the Client
Patel and Gaines have found additional ways to be more like a nimble startup. Gaines said they take steps to ensure that clients don’t feel like a number—a move that is mutually beneficial to the client and the lawyers.
“Clients should always be willing to and wanting to call their attorney because I’d rather talk to you before you do something than after you do something,” Gaines said. “We tell clients we don’t bill you if you have a simple question.”
In addition, clients are not the responsibility of just one or two attorneys. Patel Gaines clients are clients of everyone at the firm, Gaines said. Attorneys handle the legal work, but after they do their part, “staff take over and run the rest of the relay race,” he said.
Support staff handle a lot of first drafts of paperwork and correspondence. The firm also uses software that helps track and send out correspondence, which is useful in document-intensive property tax appeals. The firm’s lawyers and staff meet regularly to divvy up work and make sure no one is overloaded with assignments.
Gaines said the firm strives to provide clients with detailed advance analysis of a lawsuit because the firm’s goal is to develop long-term clients—not one-time clients. The firm uses various fee arrangements, including flat-fees and hybrid fees, he said.
Paradigm’s Fossey said Patel Gaines does indeed take a long-term view on client relationships, and he generally negotiates hourly fee arrangements with a cap or a flat fee for the property tax litigation the firm does for his company on behalf of commercial property owners. However, Fossey said it is not the fee arrangements that separate Patel Gaines from other firms, but rather the value the firm provides.
“I never feel like I’m on the clock,” he said.
Glenn Gonzalez, principal and chief executive officer of real estate company Napa Ventures in Austin, said his company’s commercial property transactions are going through faster and easier with Patel Gaines than with other firms his company has used. Patel Gaines helped it close eight transactions in a recent 18-month period, and also does some property tax appeals work for his company, Gonzalez said.
“They save me money because they are more efficient. I wouldn’t say their hourly rates are any different than any other attorney, but they certainly get through transactions quicker,” he said.
Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the Asian American Hotel Operators Association (AAHOA), which has used Patel Gaines for about five years, said the firm seems less like outside counsel and more like a part of the association’s team. “Perhaps their greatest value is the dedication they place in making sure we are satisfied with results. They are not satisfied unless we are satisfied,” Rogers said.
When the association was working on an issue in Washington, D.C., that could impact its members, Patel Gaines lawyers volunteered to spend two days with them on Capitol Hill to help lobby for the members’ interests. “Never once did they expect to be compensated. They were simply doing it because they thought they could help,” he said.
Patel and Gaines say they have succeeded largely because they have broken the law firm mold and done things differently. But maintaining a successful firm also requires making sure the firm is a fun place to work, according to Patel. The name partner said he spends 20 to 30 minutes a week with each person at the firm, to make sure he knows their goals.
“The day I quit my job [at Popp Hutcheson], I made a decision I only want to be around people I enjoy,” he said, noting that he liked the people at that firm and wanted to create an environment where that feeling would continue. “I spend more time here than I spend at home with my wife and kids. Why the hell would I want to spend time with people I don’t like?”