In the fall of 2020, Firesign published an e-book entitled “Connecting in a Crisis” that highlighted five law firms working to connect with their clients and communities in new ways during the pandemic. You can access the complete book using the download form on this page.
After more than a decade together at an Am Law 200 firm, a team of intellectual property attorneys sensed a shared chemistry and vision, so they — along with four trusted staff members — left the comfort of a large firm to strike out on their own.
It all sounds pretty straightforward, except that Avant Law Group, LLC debuted on April 15. That’s right — smack in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, stay-at-home orders and an economic shutdown. But the three partners, joined by a patent agent, technical specialist, paralegal and office manager, are far from having buyers’ remorse.
“If we could have timed it, we would have done it earlier,” said Justin Poplin, principal. “This group doesn’t doubt much.”
By mid-April, the Avant team fully understood the upheaval wreaked by the pandemic. Yet they didn’t put their plans on hold.
“Ultimately, the decision was made before everything started,” said Anna Quinn, another Avant principal. “But I think once you’ve started down that path, you don’t have a desire to turn around. At the end of the day, I don’t think anything really changes. You still have to have the same things.”
So they forged ahead even as the world took a sharp turn sideways.
Sure, some of the logistics got a bit more complicated —learning new systems, opening files, and collaborating and meeting with clients remotely.
“But it was a minor thing,” Poplin said. “It didn’t really change the things we do – just how we communicate, perhaps.”
On a Tuesday, the team worked doing what they know at one place, and on a Wednesday, they opened up doing what they know under a new name.
The Superpower of the Boutique Firm
The same metrics that made opening a boutique IP firm appealing under normal conditions also offer Avant key advantages during a unique and pervasive global crisis —to the point that the firm anticipates adding attorneys in the near future.
“We could go all day on this one,” Poplin said. “That’s what made this decision.”
The three principals enumerated multiple benefits, but they all boil down to a key advantage of the boutique firm: agility.
“If you think about it, initially you might say, ‘Hey, starting a business in this time is perhaps not the wisest decision,’ ” said Hissan Anis, the third principal. “But for us, after we had jumped in the water, we found out that this was actually not the worst time to make this decision.”
As economic uncertainty continues, companies more closely evaluate what they’re paying for everything — including whether they really need to pay a big bill to a big law firm, Anis said. And Avant’s pitch, he said, is that they’re the same people who were at big firms, but now they are available at a better rate.
“That has more traction now than maybe when the economy is humming,” Anis said.
Overhead is distinctly lower, Poplin said, and the red tape involved with offering clients alternative pricing options is nonexistent. Previously, some alternate billing arrangements couldn’t be done because the software couldn’t handle it, and alternative fees required the approval of about five steps of committees.
“It may have been theoretically possible, but it wasn’t realistically possible,” Poplin said. “Now, we can do it.”
As a newly formed firm, Avant wasn’t tied to lengthy tech contracts or other commitments that might limit adaptability, and it wasn’t handcuffed by cultural norms or long-held ways of doing things that inhibited change. The partners have questioned everything as they decide how best to run Avant.
“We discuss: Are we doing something just because we’ve known to do it in the past, or is that really what works best for us?” Poplin said. “I personally hate the term ‘best practices.’ To me, it’s a copout; it means, let’s not think about it. … Instead of best practices, we think about, ‘What should our practices be?’ ”
For example, because the Overland Park, Kan.-based firm specializes in intellectual property, the partners chose software specifically tailored to the practice, rather than the generic software required at large and diverse firms. The software changes have exponentially improved the efficiency of Avant’s practice, Anis said.
Also, “it’s easier to get three people on the same page than 300 people,” Quinn said, adding that firm leaders also can more easily bring staff into strategy discussions. “We can quickly figure out what makes our group flourish.”
Whether that means finding the billing solution that works best for the office manager or determining not to cut staff compensation during the economic decline, the parties involved with running Avant are able to set a united focus with unified goals — minus pressure to pay shareholders or force clients to pay set fees despite unique challenges.
“We can make sure everybody is winning,” Anis said.
What we love: The founders of Avant had faith in their vision – so much that they did not hesitate to launch during the most disruptive event of their lifetimes.
They embraced the opportunities for creativity inherent in a fresh start; they have eschewed Big Law tools and infrastructure and actively seek fresh new solutions. The founders also wisely recognized that many companies may be looking for more flexible, economical solutions, and they stand ready to compete. COVID-19 will fundamentally change the legal marketplace, and lawyers who cling to old systems may risk obsolescence.
The takeaway: Do something big.