Associates in the Trenches
Veterans of Failed Firms Learn to Appreciate Clients, Listen to Rumors
Posted Jul 28, 2005 10:37 AM CST
By Mark Hansen
In the fall of 1990, during his third year of law school, David Kaufman got a job offer from the five-lawyer Washington, D.C., firm where he had clerked the previous summer. Then, a few months later—in fact, the day after hiring season ended—Kaufman got a telephone call from the firm telling him his job offer was being withdrawn.
Seems that the two name partners had gotten into some sort of physical altercation over money. “I heard that one of them actually threw a punch at the other,” Kaufman says.
Kaufman managed to secure another job offer from a politically connected Washington firm. But that firm blew up a few weeks later, he says, in what he describes as a “sea of acrimony.” He managed to land yet another position, this time with the D.C. office of a big out-of-state firm. But when he showed up on a Monday morning for his first day of work, he found out that 10 of the office’s 13 lawyers had been dismissed the previous Friday. The problem? Money again, he says.
By the spring of 1992, he was the only lawyer left in the firm’s D.C. office. A few months later, he too was asked to leave. “They didn’t have any business for me, and I didn’t have any clients of my own,” he says.
Kaufman ended up with an eight-lawyer D.C. firm, where he spent three relatively uneventful years. But on Christmas Eve 1995, the managing partner’s wife, who was also the firm’s office manager and a partner, left her husband and sued the firm for her share of the partnership, he says. Within a year, that firm also was history.
“I’ve been on my own ever since,” says Kaufman, now a solo practitioner in Fairfax, Va. “With that kind of history, you can probably understand why.”
Kaufman says his experience has taught him an invaluable lesson: “You’ve got to have your own clients—otherwise you’re fungible.”
When Matthew Murer walked away from the wreckage that was once his employer, he says, he learned the value of listening to rumors, especially when they focus on firm unrest.
During his fifth year as an associate at a 140-lawyer firm in Chicago—and during a much-deserved vacation to Italy—he received an urgent message informing him that a group of partners had jumped to another firm. That action prompted a series of partner and associate defections that eventually led to the firm’s closing.
“I was floored,” Murer recalls. “I didn’t see it coming, although in retrospect, I probably should have.” That’s because there had been indications over the previous few months that all was not well, he says, including evident dissatisfaction among some of the partners and rumors about certain people leaving.
Frank Thiel didn’t have the benefit of office scuttlebutt to signal to him that any of his former firms—he went through three in less than a year—might be in trouble.
In early 1997, Thiel joined a six-lawyer New Jersey firm whose three name partners had been practicing together for more than 20 years. Two weeks after his arrival, the three partners announced that they were going their separate ways.
Thiel went to work for one of the partners. But two months later, the partner informed him that he was going to have to let him go.
That August, Thiel landed another job with a well-established 20-lawyer firm. But just before Christmas, the partner who had hired him told him the firm was breaking up and he wouldn’t be taking Thiel with him.
Today, Thiel serves as an assistant deputy public defender in Gloucester County, N.J., and he says that the moral of his story is to stick to working in the public sector. If stability is paramount, “a large county agency,” he says, “is not as likely to go under as a small firm.”