Reporter's Notebook

From Opposing Sides and in a Recession, Two Attorneys Form Their Own Firm


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Photo of Rachel M. Zahorsky by Marc Hauser.

In May 2010, as financial turmoil hammered lawyers—from Michigan’s top firms to solo practices—and their clients, two former opposing counsel struck an usual bargain.

One is a passionate class-action litigator and the other a savvy business lawyer, but Robert A. Alvarez and Raquel A. Salas shared the vision of a firm committed to cost-effective, high-level representation; equal pay among partners to promote collaboration; community service and targeted business growth—such as buying an accounting practice to boost revenue during the slow winter months and drive traffic through the door.

The duo chose the firm name Avanti, meaning “forward” in Italian, for its simplicity (and to avoid any arguments about whose last name appears on the door first). They also wanted to be clear from the onset that the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based firm’s focus was on its clients, not the partners.

“At the end of the day, we want to be good, efficient lawyers who are happy and not necessarily focused on high profits,” says managing member Salas. “Our goal is to make sure the business continues and grows throughout the years.”

Salas’ forward-thinking approach is exactly what enabled the firm to add immigration attorney Meghan E. Moore and criminal defense lawyer Jason P. Ronning as equity members, as well as four associates, five support staff and of counsel Sommers Schwartz in less than two years.

Alvarez has the freedom to put in long hours on a tort matter knowing his partners’ practices will cover day-to-day overhead as the case slowly moves forward. Should he win, all the partners will profit.

The firm also purchased a 5,700-square-foot building in October 2010 without a line of credit or personal bank loans.

“From the very beginning we agreed it was imperative to feed this business,” Moore says. “Businesses take time to develop, and we made the difficult choice to forgo a couple of pay periods in order to save for the down payment and necessary construction.”

The addition of a business manager focused on accounts receivable and customer payment plans ensured a strong financial first summer.

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Yet even with a solid plan in place, the first winter months were hard. Partners and staff made weekly adjustments to ensure payroll was met and new fee-generating clients got in the door.

Aware that a Grand Rapids tax preparer, who already was serving some firm clients, was about to graduate from law school, Avanti worried that the woman could serve its clients’ legal needs as well and jumped at the opportunity to purchase a competing tax practice.

“You can’t be idle; you have to be proactive,” Moore says of the move. “With the accounting practice we acquired an already existing client base, and now those clients are in and out of our building every single day.”

Today, the partners split management duties according to their personal strengths and meet regularly to set up growth parameters, which allowed them to contribute more than $30,000 in sponsorships and services to their community in 2011.

“You can be a good lawyer,” Salas says, “but if you’re not a good businessperson, your practice will go downhill.”

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