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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

August 17, 2020
Question

“Alternative” Law Firms On The Rise! Q&A: Tim Bowers, Managing Partner – VLP Law Group

answer
Julie Q. Brush

This global pandemic has driven professionals of all shapes and sizes into the confines of their living rooms, spare bedrooms, home offices, dining room tables and every other quiet nook and cranny of their homes. Remote working has become a necessity and in the process, the necessity…and popularity of new things and ways of working have emerged. One such area is the growth and popularity of the “alternative law firm”.  An increasing number of high quality attorneys are migrating to such firms in order to boost compensation by taking home a larger percentage of their generated business and to have complete control over their billing rates (there are several other benefits to the alternative law firm, but these two are the biggies). In a profession where competition is increasingly stiff and knife-fights for clients almost a daily event, these incentives and flexibility can pay big dividends for attorneys wooing today’s rate-conscious corporate clients.

Tim Bowers is the Managing Partner and Executive Committee Member of VLP Law Group, a national and full service “alternative law firm” that represents businesses from entrepreneurs and early-stage startups to Fortune 100 companies. VLP’s attorneys are ex Big Law heavy-hitters who seemed to possess a crystal ball before making the move to a different type of law firm.

Tim began his career as a capital markets attorney at Sidley Austin and then transitioned to K&L Gates before joining VLP Law. He is a seasoned corporate lawyer who represents emerging growth businesses in a variety of industries throughout their life cycles – and also has a sophisticated investor side practice. Tim is a great guy who was gracious enough to provide his thoughts on the current pandemic. Enjoy!

You’ve been through other economic downturns, what is unique about this one?

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with our economy.  That cannot be said of the dot-com bubble burst of the early 2000s and the housing crash of the mid-2000s.  This economic downturn is the direct result of government-imposed measures to contain a health crisis.  The pandemic brought things to a grinding halt in record time, with businesses shutting their doors, hundreds of millions of citizens locked down and tens of millions unemployed in a matter of a few weeks.  Nothing like this has happened in our lifetimes.

What do the more traditional law firms need to do to survive and thrive in these evolving times?

There are so many things to consider.  I’ll touch on a few.

One thing is certain – there will be no quick return to business as usual.  The pandemic will have a long tail and traditional firms need to be prepared for what that tail will look like.  I anticipate that, perhaps for a very long time, lawyers and staff will have great trepidation about returning to crowded office buildings in congested urban centers with commutes on public transportation in uncomfortably tight quarters.  I don’t care how much hand sanitizer and PPE you have.  That’s scary.  We’ve seen some tech companies taking a smart approach – work remotely for as long as you would like and we’ll provide you with the tools necessary to be successful.  Law firms should extend the same offer.  People make a law firm, so keeping your people happy and safe is paramount to success, especially in unprecedented times like these.

What naturally flows from that is unloading expensive commercial real estate, especially if you’re not using as much of it.  Traditional law firm overhead is horribly bloated, and it’s no secret that real estate accounts for a substantial portion of that bloat.

Finally, to state the obvious, firms need to move nimbly to get their workforces comfortable with newer technology.  In-person meetings with clients and colleagues are over for the foreseeable future, and video conferencing tools are now must-haves to maintain and deepen those relationships.

             Tim Bowers

VLP is known as “an alternative law firm”, what does that mean and what makes the firm special?

In our 12 years of existence, VLP has never owned or leased any real estate, so our lawyers and staff have always worked remotely.  I suppose that’s what makes us “alternative,” although we’re substantially similar in nearly every other way to the large traditional firms most of us came from.  We’re extraordinarily fortunate that, due to our model and unlike most other firms, the pandemic has not had any material impact on the way we deliver legal services to our clients.  In fact, our clients are keeping busier than ever and our recruiting team is happily exhausted culling through the huge influx of resumes from top-tier talent we’ve received in the past few months.  Big firm lawyers who never believed they could manage significant practices outside the traditional model are finding they can deliver as effectively outside their expensive corner offices and have more fun practicing than ever before.  Don’t tell anyone, but we’re starting to feel mainstream.

What is your career advice to today’s law students and law firm associates?

It’s really tough out there for young people.

If you’re a law student, continue to do the things you were doing before the pandemic—study, work hard, get good grades and find your way on to a journal.  Remote learning makes things more challenging, but all of your classmates are dealing with the same hurdles.  And network, network, network.  When things open back up and regular hiring resumes, having made those connections will matter.

For law firm associates, just survive.  Do everything you can to make yourself invaluable.  If things have slowed in your practice area, offer to co-author an article with a partner with whom you work or update form agreements for your practice group.  Those efforts will not go unnoticed and will help you weather this economic storm without missing a paycheck.

What does leadership need to do to keep their teams mentally healthy, motivated and positive?

Keeping people feeling connected and having fun is critical.  We have bi-weekly, well attended firmwide video conferences and virtual happy hours.  We also have a dedicated “Virtual Culture Committee” comprised of the most creative people in our organization to brainstorm ideas of how to enhance remote connections.  In a cloud-based workplace like ours, it is imperative that the organization creates an environment in which people feel meaningful connections to the business and part of a team, and we have found these approaches effective.  In addition, at the beginning of the pandemic, one of our trademark partners rolled out an extremely popular weekly Friday event called the VLP Friday TimeWaster.  The first edition required naming three scenes from television shows or films that made you laugh until you cried the first time you saw them.  Participation was nearly 100% and the responses were great insight into colleague tastes, while doubling as great recommendations for shelter-in-place binge watching.  Now, more than two months in and still wildly popular and anxiously anticipated, I’m hopeful this fun collaboration will remain with us well past COVID-19.

What have you learned about yourself during these challenging times?

I’ve learned how extremely lucky I am.  I’m sheltering in place with a loving, happy, healthy family and working at a firm comprised of people I admire and adore.

Top 3 ways the professional world will change after Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter movement?

Much more remote working.  A results-driven focus on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, rather than hollow, marketing-driven lip service.  Flexible expectations around work hours and work settings.

What are you doing to stay mentally and physically healthy while you are quarantined?

My wife, son and I love to get outside and bike along San Francisco Bay and in Marin County.  Feeling the wind on your face and in your hair is extraordinarily cleansing.  It brings us back to a sense of normalcy. There’s also been a whole lot of dinnertime Uno.  Our son is obsessed and he keeps us on our toes!

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