A founder’s story from Portugal.
I was just turning 26 when I decided to join my father, a 52-year old sole practitioner in a small town in Portugal, the beautiful and more than two thousand years old city of Chaves. After completing my law degree in Lisbon and my traineeship in a big law firm in Porto, it was time to get back home and become the lawyer I wanted to be.
Many colleagues and friends failed to understand my decision and could only see it as a waste of talent or simply poor judgment. Always thinking within the frame of success we keep imposing over younger generations: go to college, get good grades, and enter a big law firm. Just as if success was not something to be defined individually, as if lawyering was not possible outside of a big law firm, as if there was nothing more in the legal sector than being a big law firm lawyer.
Almost eleven years have passed since and building a law firm alongside my father and some very good friends that joined along the way (especially José Varanda who, at 31 years old, assumed the challenge of launching our Lisbon office) has been one of the most rewarding experiences and challenges of my life.
We are now a team of seven (six lawyers and one legal secretary), with offices in Chaves, Porto, and Lisbon. Under our mission statement “building businesses, growing together”, we have built a team of lawyers that is really committed to the success of our clients. We have grown particularly strong in the Portuguese startup ecosystem, having the opportunity to work side-by-side with entrepreneurs with innovative ideas and tech projects. Our law firm is now associated with an international network of law firms (the International Commercial Law Alliance) and our lawyers are active members on a number of international associations, from the International Association of Young Lawyers (AIJA) to the European Legal Tech Association (ELTA) and, most recently, CLOC.
As the young leader for a business boutique law firm, a decade of experience has revealed several takeaways that other young lawyers might find helpful.
First, as legal and business and counselors, we are not in the taxi industry and we do not work under the rule of a taximeter. It is possible to build a law firm beyond billable hours. This doesn’t mean that the professionals at our firm don’t track time or that billable hours are not the best solution for some projects. It means that billable hours are not the yin and yang of the business, that costing and pricing can be built and teams can be managed under a different approach.
Second, we are not exactly in the business of providing legal expertise. It is more accurate to say that we use our legal expertise to provide solutions. We are not important to our clients because of what we know—that’s given, we have to know—but because of the problems we solve or prevent. This may seem like a tiny difference, but this has an impact on the way we communicate, understand the problems, and work with the clients. We came to the conclusion that what we really provide is a combination of legal advice, legal project management, and legal operations service. This approach enables us to deliver the best guidance and to build the best solutions.
Third, our work is not about ourselves; we are not the stars of our business, our clients are. We came to realize and understand the need for a client-centric approach based on collaboration, transparency, and predictability. This is easier said than done and requires permanent effort and attention. But we have no doubts that this is the path to follow.
The last takeaway is that there is always a lot to learn and there is nothing better than keep studying and trying. Cf. Post 160 (perpetual learning is hallmark of leading lawyers). We will not understand project management in the context of law until we start applying it and learning from it. If we are afraid of organizing regular client feedback, we will miss valuable information. It is hard, it takes time, it takes the stomach to get it wrong sometimes (or many times), but either we want to move forward and be better or we don’t. Cf. Post 154 (per Cat Moon, we #makelawbetter through our willingness to fail).
In two weeks, Areias Advogados will run the first design sprint in the law firm. We have prepared for this and we are excited about it. Due to the pandemic, we will do it online, which will make it a bit harder. I hope I can get back to you to tell you about what we consider to be one more step forward in building the law firm we want to be.
[For additional background on David Salgado Areias, see Post 163. wdh]