Graduate college, ace the LSAT to get into a top law school, land a prestigious job in a large firm, and make partner before happily retiring. For many attorneys, this is the ideal path.
But what happens when your dream finally comes true and you realize you want something else?
We interviewed six attorneys who found success in large firms or in-house legal departments (and in some cases both) and then left to open their own boutique firms. For them, finding success in those legal environments wasn’t enough. They were compelled to practice law their way, without the limitations and constraints that can come with working at a large global firm or corporation.
The lack of diversity at senior and leadership levels in Big Law and in-house legal departments is no secret. Being people of color in the Big Law world was a big motivator for them to start their own firms.
Instead of waiting to be invited to take a seat at the table, Angela, Lila, Warren, Ray, Zohra, and Joyce decided to build and sit at the head of their own.
As they overcame the challenges of running a business — in a pandemic, nonetheless — they leaned on each other for support. With the help of technology and each other, they proved that impressive clientele, mentorship, and opportunity can be the stuff of boutique law, not just large firms or departments.
Warren Allen II met Ray McKenzie at Skadden in 2007, when Ray was a summer associate. They worked closely on several cases once Ray officially joined the firm and he often went to Warren for advice.
When Ray eventually moved on to an opportunity at the US Attorney’s Office, the two kept in touch and Warren rose up in the firm. “I was well-regarded, well-compensated, and I liked the attorneys with whom I worked,” says Warren. “But what I learned through my time at Skadden is that the money doesn’t make you happy — it’s personal relationships.”
Though he remains close with his former colleagues at Skadden and has no regrets about his time there, Warren was concerned that the traditional law firm model generally is over focused on maximizing individual law firm partners’ profits, and that trend has strained client trust. “I’d rather have a good long-term relationship with a happy client contact than the biggest check possible,” says Warren. He concluded disputes about money create much of the reported unhappiness in the profession and wanted to try a relationship-centered model.
In 2018, he decided he wanted to be able to help clients without being beholden to a Big Law rate card and embarked on initial steps towards starting his own firm. He concluded that he needed a partner and turned to Ray who had the courtroom experience, familiarity with criminal procedures, and leadership qualities that would add immediate value. Warren says simply, “I knew the firm would need really talented people with the experience clients demand but who were crazy enough to challenge a well-entrenched model. Ray was my top choice because he’s a dear friend and an amazing attorney. Trying something this hard would take both those qualities.” As for leaving his role as a federal prosecutor, Ray reports, “I loved being an AUSA and remain in contact with many of my former colleagues, but, ultimately, joining Warren to build a relationship-centric practice from the ground up was too exciting an opportunity to pass up.”
With Ray on board, they got to work on planning their launch. Warren filed the registration for the firm while still at Skadden, working on the tech infrastructure on nights and weekends. “You find out how much you don’t know about so many different things like, how do I make sure IT is adequately secured?” says Warren. “It was a lot of work getting momentum and building from scratch. You have to figure out how to get business in the door and operate a business at the same time. But we found that PracticePanther, Microsoft’s Office 365 products, Intuit’s QuickBooks Online service, and other cloud-based systems allow even small firms to create a scalable operation. When we were finally able to grow and add another friend from Skadden, Gary Rubin, as our third partner, integrating him was a breeze even though he works more than 1300 miles away in Texas.”
The firm launched in June of 2019. Today, Warren, Ray, and Gary assist WTAII PLLC’s clients with government enforcement and internal investigations, anti-corruption diligence, compliance programs, litigation, and general strategic legal advice.
Crawford & Acharya pllc
Angela Crawford and Lila Acharya met while working on an international matter in Dubai. Angela was a partner at DLA Piper and Lila was in-house counsel at Pfizer. Lila naturally found a mentor in her. “Women lawyers in particular need to find role models early and keep them close,” says Lila.
Over the years, they became thought-partners and shared their professional ambitions as they both increasingly wanted to leave their firms for something different. “It’s really important to me when we don’t see women or women of color holding powerful positions at firms. Instead of waiting for that to happen, it just made sense to make our own table — rather than wait for someone to invite us and sit down.” shares Lila.
Angela wanted to create a firm with the client engagement, pricing structure, and framework she wanted. “We’re interested in being fair, collaborative, and client centric. We ask ourselves what is the real value add from our client’s perspective? What fee structure and approach seem appropriate based on the particular matter and client’s needs?” says Angela.
The two launched their corporate compliance and investigations boutique law firm, Crawford & Acharya pllc, in February of 2020 just at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. With COVID-19 putting life on hold, they had to figure out how to adapt to a situation unlike anything they had experienced before. “We’ve managed to persevere and expand our client base,” says Lila. “We’re at a place where the world is opening up again. We’ve adapted to the unique challenges caused by COVID-19 and companies still need outside counsel. The challenge was not panicking from the get-go; we did this not expecting a pandemic.”
Angela adds that they knew fellow boutique lawyers who were generous with sharing books, contacts, and advice to help them persevere.
Now, their international corporate compliance and investigations boutique successfully serves world-class clientele in the U.S. and Europe.
Tong Tejani PLLC
Zohra Tejani and Joyce Tong Oelrich met at Microsoft where both worked as in-house counsels: Zohra, supporting the US public sector sales team, and Joyce developing the Public Sector Procurement Compliance program for the US and worldwide. “At Microsoft, we were like ships passing in the night, we always intended to sit down together and catch-up, but never had the time to talk,” says Joyce.
It was only until they left Microsoft that they grew closer and talked about what they wanted from their careers and life. For Joyce, being her own boss was very appealing and when her kids reached the age where they could attend school, it finally felt like the right time. Joyce had confidence that if she and Zohra started their own firm, they could deliver the same high-quality legal advice as larger firms while also bringing their in-house experience to the table. “We wanted to develop a practice that could provide good legal advice to our clients in an actionable and useful way for the clients.” says Joyce. “If we did grow, we’d be able to mentor and provide a path to success for young attorneys.”
Tong Tejani PLLC was founded in late 2019, serving companies working across the public sector, with government contracting and compliance cases. And just like WTAII PLLC and Crawford & Acharya, they have demonstrated impressive resilience and success during the pandemic.
Counting on Community
For these attorneys, leaning on others who also founded their own firms helped them embark into the unknown. The boutique community was generous, sharing personal experiences, walking each other through challenges, and providing connections with others who could help or provide advice.
Now that their practices are running, Angela, Lila, Warren, Ray, Zohra, and Joyce have regular video calls. They connect, share ideas, and bond over common challenges of running a two-person practice. “I just care so much about the success of these two other firms,” says Zohra.
If one thing is clear from the boutique community, it’s that growth comes from putting people first and doing what you’re passionate about.
Building Their Practices Around Their Clients
Their determination to put their values into practice tied them to common ground. For each firm, it all boils down to elevating the client experience.
For Tong Tejani PLLC, that means pivoting to how their clients want to pay and being comfortable with alternate billing models. Zohra says “We don’t want to be transactional with our clients; we want to be trusted advisors.” Similarly, Crawford & Acharya pllc uses flexible billing to assess the value they bring on an ongoing basis.
When the client feels that the firm values their experience more than personal profit, it leads to closer relationships and better representation.
Using Technology to Be Client-Centric
Technology is a big enabler for these firms to provide client-centric services — especially when attorneys tend not to have business backgrounds.
With a seamless, cloud-based infrastructure, collaboration, flexibility, and communication are easier than ever before. “PracticePanther allows small players like us to build a workable infrastructure that meets clients expectations — without the staff and overhead to cover it,” says Warren.
Tong Tejani PLLC uses PracticePanther to easily manage unique client needs in their practice areas of technology, GovTech, and government contracts, as well as alternative dispute resolution.
As the coronavirus continues, Crawford & Acharya pllc, Tong Tejani PLLC, and WTAII PLLC can also take full advantage of having a virtual practice. Thanks to the cloud, they don’t need real estate, physical document management systems, or in-house administrative support to start their boutiques which saves them a lot of money in overhead.
Building Their Own Table
In the past, boutiques suffered from the stigma that they lack the resources and prestige compared to large firms or in-house legal departments. But that’s changing, especially as more attorneys use technology to level the playing field, amplify their voice and empower their entrepreneurial spirit.
Now, the founders of Crawford & Acharya pllc, Tong Tejani PLLC, and WTAII PLLC are living out their vision, focusing more on client relationships, and practicing law the way they’ve always wanted to. All during a pandemic.
They prove that real change in the legal profession is possible during this new era of remote work, and that meaningful opportunities for mentorship and entrepreneurship exist when diversity is seen as an asset.
Zohra says, “The connection between diversity of thought and actual diversity is strong.”
We couldn’t agree more.