John Balestriere* This article first appeared in AbovetheLaw
Much ink is spilled on how some law firms have gotten too large. And more ink is spilled (in the law and all professions) about some day long ago when everything was supposedly better. The latter was a topic at a lunch I had with a very experienced trusts and estates lawyer just this week.
The view is that unlike our current era of growing mega-firms, it was better (supposedly) when only one lawyer handled a matter (perhaps all matters) for a client, and, in litigation, with one individual adversary, before one judge who maybe did not rely much on law clerks.
Maybe things were once better in much of the practice of law, though I’m generally not one to rely much on nostalgia (and also just not old enough to have experienced conditions during such times).
And maybe clients were served better, again, in some areas of the law, when they had a true professional relationship of confidence with only one lawyer, perhaps a lawyer that handled a range of needs for the client.
But clients in complex litigation today are not better served by one lawyer than they are by the right team. The simple reason why is that in the complicated litigation that you see in business matters that I focus on, as well as in many other areas of litigation such as civil rights, class actions, false claims matters, and even many criminal cases, you need to have a team, properly sized and constituted.
Why? There simply will be occasions where there is way too much going on all at once in such litigation for one lawyer, even a very good one, to have the time to handle all the work, even if such lawyer spent all of his or her time on the matter. And that’s not even touching on how different team members may have skills others on the team do not.
Having a team does not mean five layers of staffing—the relationship partner, the assignment partner, the senior associate, a gaggle of associates, a busload of paralegals.
I exaggerate (a bit), but I’ve worked on matters where I have seen our adversaries or co-counsel assign what appear to me to be way too many professionals on a matter. I’m not suggesting you need to load up an assignment with too many people—a bloated team will not do as good of a job of the appropriately sized, lean team.
Teams do not need to be big, and should avoid duplication of personnel type.
At our firm, we generally assign to a matter on an ongoing basis three professionals with different roles and responsibility levels: a more senior lawyer, a more junior lawyer, and a very good paralegal.
Very importantly, we also have others at various levels ready to step in to assist at crunch times—when getting out a major filing, when you unexpectedly need to get a letter into the court in two hours and your other team members are out of the office handling an argument, when prepping for weeks on end for depositions, or, in some of our bigger matters, when you want a devil’s advocate, regularly challenging your positions. You have a core team, but then your entire team of colleagues available as needed.
The point of the team is not only to make sure all the work gets done but because our work, when done best, is collaborative. We do a better job of discussing the challenges and solutions with one another (even if you have to always keep in mind that clients are not fans of billing entries that reflect internal discussions). I refer here only to your work with those regularly on the team. But even at non-crunch times you want to rely on your non-team-member colleagues, and not just the devil’s advocate, to provide you with gut checks and get you out of falling in love with your arguments.
What this all means for lawyers that want to be great litigators is that you need to find the right team. Supposedly “better” law offices may not always have the best teams. Some of the most prestigious law firms put way, way too many people on their matters.
I’ve seen the same in some of the supposedly best prosecutor’s offices. I’ve seen it in impossible-to-get jobs at nonprofits. Whatever the reason, a great law office may not have the great team that litigators need to do their best work.
But if lawyers want do the best work—for their clients, and for themselves—they need to find the best teams and fulfill their roles in those teams.
*John Balestriere is a trial lawyer who founded his firm after working as a prosecutor and litigator at a small firm. He is a partner at trial and investigations law firm Balestriere Fariello in New York