The Merits of Ditching the Office for an ‘Un-Traditional’ Law Firm (Guest Column)

Writes music attorney Jill Berliner: "We decide what our work-life balance should be – by the year, month, week, day or even hour."

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Yes rock ‘n’ rollers, music law is a corporate job.  It’s intellectual property. It’s risk management. It’s licensing.  . . . and lots more sophisticated legal brouhaha. Traditional music lawyers still wear expensive suits, fancy watches and designer shoes. They sit in high rent office buildings with spectacular views of the ocean, the mountains, or the city lights. Receptionists handle phones; librarians regularly update and organize the firm’s private law library; several file clerks deposit dead forests of print-outs in two-hole-punched standard green binders. Most senior music lawyers have a personal assistant all to themselves. Runners get their cars washed.

Billing rates and commissions are high enough to afford the minimalist yet intricate trappings of the traditional law office and so traditional music lawyers are slaves to the billable hour. They are slaves to origination and attribution and a leveraged economic pyramid which is the model for virtually all major law firms. This means that “minimum billable hours” must be met or exceeded even if it means “padding” hours to appear hard-working. Successful lawyers in traditional firms know how and when to pad their hours.

Working alongside the managers, agents and entourage of people surrounding “the talent” all sounds wonderfully exciting, until you realize what it really means: effectively handcuffed in golden bracelets to your desk. A person can feel suffocated. You daydream about your next vacation, shop online, watch unmentionable videos on your desktop computer. Anything to mentally escape the confines of your luxury lifestyle.

Do you have kids?  An aging or ailing parent? A partner or spouse who needs your attention? Take time away from your office and watch the disdainful and often degrading reaction from the other partners. No one really wants to talk about the environment or the atmosphere. There is a mystique – an aura of extraordinary good fortune surrounded by luxury and celebrity – how enviable to represent musical artists. But how much does a person sacrifice of themselves and a healthy lifestyle to fit in?

Turns out I didn’t have to sacrifice at all. There are now alternatives to the traditional law firm. In my case it took many years to open my mind to the possibility that the practice can be undertaken in a more non-conformist, non-traditional way of blending a career with a life and still serving my clients well and continuing to earn their trust and respect. I moved from name partner at a “traditional” firm I helped create more than 20 years ago, to partner at my new “evolved” firm, Rimôn.

At Rimôn I don’t have to keep track of hours, I am free to create billing structures that help clients. I am encouraged and incentivized to find ways to mutually agree with the clients on how to bill, when to bill and for what – for each client; for each matter; for each item. I’m free and encouraged to be flexible. The founders of Rimôn acknowledge my expertise and trust me to effectively run my own businesses within their rubric. This allows me to be transparent; to be open with clients. The law is also a business. The clients and the founders of Rimôn understand and allow me to operate in more creative ways that work better for everyone.

Here are some examples of how it might work:

Need an office? Don’t need an office? No one cares. Sit on a beach or sit in a dark room staring at a computer screen. I choose to work remotely with a picture window overlooking a lake.

Need support? Not hordes of duplicative lawyers working on the same files and making numerous photocopies and holding meetings. Real support, from professionals who are just as seasoned and experienced as you are? Rimon has a big network and geography doesn’t matter.

Hate the politics? Rimôn has figured out a way to avoid the traditional law firm leverage/pyramid scheme with junior associates climbing the ladder, playing office politics with the right people. We just don’t have any. No training programs my clients pay for; no ladders anyone needs to climb. It’s not the way we are structured. We’re spherical – there is no ‘up,’ no committees, no votes. Just us, a collaborative, cooperative culture of very smart, qualified people, with common sense.

Our lawyers are easy to reach, happy to help, are not bound by a financial compensation scheme that categorizes rainmakers or worker bees. We don’t and won’t work that way. Everyone is treated equally and everyone keeps more of what they work for.

Bottom line: we’ve turned the ‘traditional’ law firm model upside down and created a firm centered around having happy legal professionals working collaboratively with clients and colleagues in ways that make sense and that we can choose and implement. Financial transparency. Flexibility. Dynamic structure. Open communication. Value based relationships. Focus on client service. Support aligned to serve you and the client, not constrained by rigid firm structures. We each decide for ourselves what the work-personal life balance should be – by the year, month, week, day or even hour.  Want to sail around the world? No worries, but please send pictures and share your experiences.

Rather than try to reengineer a model that doesn’t work, Rimôn started from the bottom up, building a different type of law firm. Not traditional, but not ‘virtual’ either. Just different; better; evolved!

Finally, as an un-traditional lawyer, I did the un-traditional thing. I listened to my instincts, listened to others who had joined before me and then . . . took a leap of faith. One that has paid more dividends than I could have imagined.

In 2008, two idealistic lawyers invented a new law firm structure that they wanted to be a model of innovation and excellence. Ten years later, Rimôn has grown to 80 attorneys across 17 offices and 3 continents and it’s working fabulously for me and the musical types I represent.

Among Jill Berliner’s longtime clients is rock band the Foo Fighters and its frontman Dave Grohl.