Young Ex-BigLaw Attys Succeed With Own Boutique

Law360, New York (October 27, 2010) -- After testing the BigLaw waters, Gregory Doll, Hunter Eley and Michael Amir, then associates in their early 30s, made the risky move of launching a boutique firm. Five years later, they have a 10-0 trial record and a book of over 250 clients, proving that options can be broader than the big-firm route for young attorneys who want to succeed while doing interesting trial work.

As a young associate in the early 2000s at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Los Angeles, Eley had a view of the courthouse from his office window.

“I began realizing if I stayed on the 43rd floor of a law firm, that was about as close as I was going to get to the courtroom in the foreseeable future,” Eley said.

That realization prompted Eley to move to a boutique firm, Browne Woods George LLP, where Doll, a friend Eley had met at Gibson Dunn, was also an associate.

Doll decided to parlay an existing client relationship to form his own litigation boutique with his wife, Dina Sayegh Doll, in 2004. Amir and Eley came on board the next year.

The three of them, who were between the ages of 31 and 34 at the time, embarked on a risky path to compete with established firms for litigation business. Lacking senior partners, they decided they had to compete with billing, setting their rate at a very competitive $350 per hour — the price of a mid-level associate at a large firm.

“We decided that the best way for us to succeed would be to try to capitalize on what then seemed to be an emerging trend in the marketplace, which was partners from big firms branching off and starting their own smaller litigation shops, to try to service clients at reduced rates,” said Eley, who is now 37.

"We just made the decision very early on that we weren’t going to charge $800 per partner to litigate a case," added Doll, 39.

The firm’s success was a confluence of timing and skill. Doll Amir & Eley LLP started in 2005, just before the economic crisis forced law firms to re-examine their billing models. When the downturn hit, the firm was especially well-positioned to get clients that would otherwise have gone to larger law firms.

And they began winning the cases they took to trial, giving them a track record to attract bigger clients — such as a Silicon Valley software company, a health maintenance organization and former NBA athletes.

Today, the firm, which is about to bring on its 12th attorney, is expanding so fast that it has already outgrown the bigger office space they plan to move into in January and is now having the space redesigned to accommodate the growth.

"I think stories like this could persuade more big-firm lawyers that there's another career direction available,” said Ross Fishman of Fishman Marketing Inc., who does marketing work for Doll Amir & Eley.

Fishman said he was initially hesitant to advise the firm to advertise based on its low rates, even though that was one of its main selling points.

“Generally I don’t like my law firm clients to sell on price,” he said. “I'd rather help my clients show that they're ‘more expensive but worth it’ rather than ‘just as good (or better) yet cheaper.’

” But he was persuaded by the three partners because “they understood their marketing challenges, target audience and how the economy affects them."

“Under-40 attorneys inherently have some marketing challenges that older ‘gray-haired’ lawyers don’t,” Fishman added.

One of those challenges was building up a client base, a process that gave meaning to the expression "young and hungry."

“We’ve had to roll up our sleeves and put in a lot of effort upfront to demonstrate to the potential clients, particularly the bigger clients, that we have the right stuff to handle the case,” Eley said.

He worked for three years to win the business of a Fortune 100 financial services company.

His first meeting with the company’s entire legal services department was nerve-wracking, “being a fifth-year attorney talking about your own law firm and the kinds of services you would provide for a mammoth financial institution like that,” Eley said.

“I didn’t get the case that day or two weeks after that or a month after that. I worked for three years trying to keep the door open; finally after three years, I got my first case from that client,” he said.

Today, the firm handles all of the client’s cases in four to five different states, as well as its entire California litigation portfolio.

The extra work needed to run a boutique firm has come with rewards, including allowing the three lawyers to do the trial work they had wanted to do at larger firms.

“My entire reason for going to a boutique was to learn how to be a trial lawyer,” Doll said. Although he got solid training at big firms, he had never in his five years as an associate worked on a case that had gone to trial. That all changed with Doll Amir & Eley, when Doll went to trial in his first year.

The low legal fees have in turn attracted clients who know they have an opportunity to go to trial "if they feel strongly about the facts of the case," Doll said.

"When you're only being charged $350 per hour, you have a lot more flexibility in your tools and tactics, and you don’t have to settle a case that should go to trial merely because of the crushing weight of the legal fees," Fishman said.

To deal with the uncertainty that accompanied trying their first cases, Doll Amir & Eley played out a trial before mock juries, a strategy they have continued to use. Because of the firm's low billing rates, clients were willing to pay the cost.

The strategy paid dividends when Doll and Amir worked on their first white collar case, defending a senior The Kroger Co. vice president who was facing 30 years in prison on charges he and other executives conspired to break a labor strike at subsidiary Ralphs Grocery Co. through falsifying U.S. Internal Revenue Service documents and identity theft.

The U.S. attorney’s office planned to play up a labor-versus-management theme, and Doll and Amir knew that would mean prosecutors would angle for a jury with union members.

The firm brought in four sets of mock juries to hear the case. Unexpectedly, the union members on the jury were fair to Doll and Amir's client because the allegations involved union members who had secretly worked for the company during a strike.

Before the trial, Doll found his side was picking the same jury as the U.S. attorneys. After a nearly month-long trial, a jury acquitted his client on every single count after less than five hours of deliberation.

Although the three partners do not plan to return to a big firm anytime soon, Amir credits Gibson Dunn for their success.

"I really don’t think we would be where we are if we had not worked with such talented attorneys who showed us how to approach a case," he said.

Although the firm's success has been built in part on the demands created by the recession, Doll believes the firm will still have a viable model when the downturn ends, adding that he and his partners do not plan to raise their rates when that happens.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily going to be a mass exodus to raise legal fees,” he said. “The model is viable; the model is working.”