There are opportunities and unique challenges
We are all familiar with the aphorism, “A jack of all trades is a master of none.” The saying immediately conjures negative connotations, bringing to mind someone who, while lacking special skills and knowledge, is nonetheless willing to give anything a try. The saying serves as a warning that in trying to have a hand in everything, you may end up not being very good at anything at all.
This warning seems particularly well suited to the practice of law, which is by its nature, vast, complex and ever changing. Indeed, our own terminology captures this: we “practice” law because it is impossible to master any part of it – never mind all of it. Our Rules of Professional Conduct mandate that we “perform legal services with competence” which requires, in part, that we have the “learning and skill … necessary for the performance of such service.” (Rule 1.1(a), (b).)
Our firm represents clients in many different practice areas: from personal injury to employment, from sexual abuse to antitrust, and from civil rights to consumer and employment class actions. And we believe that the breadth of our practice is a strength – not a weakness. Our diversified practice provides income streams that have varying time projections and risk profiles. It allows us to take on cases that, although terribly important and meaningful, are incredibly difficult and may take many, many years to resolve. Our ability to take on those difficult cases is fueled by the other cases we take on that are more likely to resolve more quickly and consistently.
A diversified practice gives us flexibility, allowing us to focus on multiple practice areas and represent client needs in response to changing demands and developments in the law. It gives us broader knowledge, a greater understanding of each practice area and the opportunity to apply litigation and trial skills across different practice areas.
By identifying the core skills which set you apart – you may find, as we do, that applying those skills in different practice areas is beneficial for you and, more importantly, for your clients. Thus, while we are not here to suggest that you should become a “jack of all trades” in your law practice, we do believe that there is wisdom in the original, complete version of the saying: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”
Running a multi-practice law firm, however, doesn’t only provide opportunities, it also raises unique challenges. Below, we share some of what we have learned in running a multi-practice firm.
Identify those core skills that you are truly great at
The reality is that you cannot do everything, and your firm simply cannot take on every case that shows up at your doorstep. A single-practice firm has an inherent initial filter applied to every case evaluation: Is this case in our practice area? In a multi-practice firm, this initial filter should be replaced with: Will this case utilize our core skills? In order to answer that question, you must obviously first identify your and your firm’s core skills. These are those skills that you are truly great at and which set you apart. In short, they are the skills that allow you to bring real value to your clients’ cases.
These core skills can be your specialized knowledge in an area of law. They can also be your specialized knowledge in the underlying subject matter of the case, in the defendant’s industry, or even your knowledge of the specific defendant itself. For example, perhaps you were previously involved in a multi-year litigation against the defendant, took dozens of depositions of the defendant’s top executives and know the defendant as well as, or better, than anyone outside of the organization.
Alternatively, core skills can also refer to the specialized abilities that you have developed throughout your career. For example, your track record in trying particular types of cases such as class actions or multi-plaintiff litigation. It could also be your developed abilities to successfully manage cases involving hundreds of clients or an in-house ability to utilize the defendant’s own data against it. Whatever your core skills, it is vital to make sure that you are aware of what they are and to only take on cases where you are confident your core skills will make the difference.
Be ready to work with others and be a team player
Once you identify your own core skills, you must next identify and examine what others can do better than you. Running a multi-practice firm requires you to acknowledge not only what you are great at, but also to acknowledge that there will often be things that you will need help with. For example, a case might involve an area of law that you only have some experience with or it may be venued in a jurisdiction where you don’t frequently practice. This requires you to be ready to work with others and be a great team player.
As explained in Rule 1.1(c) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, when “a lawyer does not have sufficient learning and skill when the legal services are undertaken, the lawyer nonetheless may provide competent representation by associating with or, where appropriate, professionally consulting another lawyer whom the lawyer reasonably believes to be competent[.]” Be ready to identify what skills you lack, who you can potentially join forces with that has those skills, and work to develop and maintain teams within your firm or across firms to best represent your clients.
Building the right team of individuals is not enough. We believe that a successful multi-practice law firm is a firm where everyone (staff, attorneys and partners) enjoys working with and collaborating together – both internally and across different firms. In short, you must be a great team player. If you prefer to go it alone, then you are probably going to be more successful, and happy, sticking to limited practice areas.
Being a great team player requires communication, common goals and trust. Encourage frequent communication. Technology allows you to have dedicated, electronic hubs for each case, where team members (both within and outside of your firm) can message each other and share calendars and assignments and have a common repository for pleadings, discovery, correspondence and other case-related documents. Keeping everyone on the same page is essential since, absent that, you are not really a team.
The same is true about your team’s goals. Without clear, common goals, you may be a group of people who work together, but not a real team. Everyone on a team will obviously share the goal of winning the litigation and getting the best result for the client. The end result is not the scope and breadth of real teamwork. To be a team, you have to all agree on every step and procedure that will lead you to reach those ultimate goals.
Finally, being a team player requires trust. You will frequently find yourself having to rely on the knowledge and skills of others on your team. You can only do this if a foundation of trust has been built. Asking for help from others is not limited to formal, co-counsel relationships. Developing a mentor-mentee relationship with someone in a different practice area or jurisdiction is invaluable, as are the resources provided by trial lawyer associations like CAALA.
Be flexible but deliberate with your marketing
Marketing for a multi-practice firm differs significantly from marketing for a single-practice firm. In a single-practice firm, you have the advantage of being able to focus your marketing on a common, clear message to the community. In a multi-practice firm, it is all too easy to have your message diluted and be edged out by those who focus on a particular practice area. That is why we believe you must be flexible but deliberate with your marketing. Here is what we mean: Be flexible with how you market but deliberate in what you spend on marketing and what it is that you are marketing.
Today’s legal marketing is so different and varied than it was even a decade ago. The significance of 24/7 access to social media and the internet have brought legal marketing to a new level. While the traditional marketing mainstays of billboards, periodicals, radio and television are still around, using internet and social media as a tool makes marketing for different practice areas more cost efficient and effective. In the past, the cost of more traditional advertising caused most firms to be cautious about what and how they marketed. Today, you can advertise your multi-area practice more liberally and, by comparison, less expensively.
Should you decide that expanding your practice areas is right for you and your firm, we suggest you decide which areas you want to focus on and create a marketing plan that will appeal to the sources from which you expect to receive cases. We all rely on friends, family, peers, business associates and traditional referral sources to send cases our way. Once you decide to broaden your firm’s practice areas, many of those sources may not find you an attractive choice – since these new areas of law are not what they have always known you for. You need to show your referral sources that you not only have the ability, but also the resources (both human and economic) to handle this new area. A suggested first approach is to send your referral sources an email or letter explaining and summarizing this new area of law, the types of cases you are handling, and the most significant part of your email, an explanation as to why. If they were already comfortable with your litigation and trial skills in one area, they will become comfortable in another if you educate them in and show an understanding of that practice area. On the flip side, taking advantage of the internet and social media will give you more opportunities simply because the targets of online marketing do not know you, and are simply looking for a lawyer who practices in this new area you are now entering.
Be stringent with your internal processes and monitoring
Running a multi-practice firm requires discipline: discipline in what cases you take, discipline in how you monitor those cases, and financial discipline. We have found success in developing extensive, written internal policies and procedures (for everything from how a new case is opened to how the daily mail is handled) as well as stringent monitoring of cases (for everything from the progression of a case in litigation to our monthly budgeting of all resources). Here too, technology is critical. Some of what we rely on is common to all practices, such as calendaring and case management software, but other things we have developed in-house including our work-in-progress reports, case projection reports and budgeting reports. Whatever you use, you cannot manage a multi-practice firm without stringent internal processes and monitoring.
Develop a culture that is excited by learning and not afraid of the unknown
One of the most gratifying aspects of being part of a multi-practice firm, is the constant opportunity to learn new things and apply that learning across cases and practice areas. Although it may sometimes feel like drinking from a firehose, the experience is genuinely rewarding – if you love learning. The desire to learn new things and the boldness to venture into the unknown must be ingrained in you and everyone in your firm.
Developing this culture starts with you. If you’re not excited by constantly adding to your knowledge base or if you are terrified by taking on cases where you are not an expert, then a multi-practice firm is probably not for you.
Excitement for learning and comfort with uncertainty is necessary, but not sufficient. You must surround yourself with a team of likeminded people. That means you must prioritize these qualities as part of your recruitment and hiring. We look for people who have a demonstrated history of quick learning and willingness to take on difficult assignments way before others might have thought they were ready to do so. Those qualities, plus the wisdom and humility to readily reach out for help, along with a track record of being a team player, are the foundation of the perfect candidate for every position at our firm.
It is also important to foster this culture. You do that, of course, with the cases you decided to bring into the firm. But you also do it with training. For us, that means: Always Be Training. We offer and encourage everyone at the firm to attend seminars both online and in the real world. For example, we have been lucky enough to offer to send everyone at our firm, from all three of our offices, to CAALA’s Annual Las Vegas Convention. It is expensive, but we believe it pays dividends not only in the knowledge we all gain, but also in reinforcing a culture of learning. We also conduct in-house online video lectures where lawyers and staff members give presentations to the rest of the firm on various subjects – everything from “How to Request Medical Records,” to “Accurate Case Projections: Why We Need Them and How to Get Them.”
In understanding and appreciating that the “practice” of law never ends and that all good attorneys continue to improve and hone their skills no matter how long they have been practicing, it seems logical and inherent that delving into another practice area is not inconsistent with this general premise. It’s also not inconsistent with most trial lawyers’ inherent nature – we all like challenges!
Mike Arias has a national practice. He has been practicing law for over 30 years and has been a CAALA member since 1986. While he is litigating class and mass tort actions throughout the country he is also handling personal injury, employment, business and other individual cases. His trial experience is diverse as well, having tried cases involving serious personal injury, medical and dental malpractice, products liability, false imprisonment, fraud, breach of contract and employment issues. Arias is the current President of Consumer Attorneys’ Association of Los Angeles and President-elect of Consumer Attorneys of California and serves on the Board of Governors of AAJ.
Alfredo Torrijos is a partner of Arias Sanguinetti Wang & Torrijos LLP. Mr. Torrijos prosecutes both individual and class actions in state and federal court, focusing on complex litigation matters in breach of contract, employment, consumer fraud, bad faith insurance, intellectual property and technology law. He has been recognized as a Super Lawyer every year since 2015.
by the author.
For reprint permission, contact the publisher: Advocate Magazine