Today's profile features lawyer and lawpreneur Darlene Tonelli. Darlene shares some great advice not only on figuring out "how" to start your own firm, but also on the "why?":
1. Tell me a little about your law firm/practice.
Inter Alia Law started as my own solo practice in music and technology in 2013. We’ve expanded over the years into an association of 9 lawyers practicing at the intersection of technology, media and entertainment.
All of the lawyers under our banner were trained at large firms and then spent significant time in-house. As a result, I believe we have a different take on what it means to be “business-minded” as a lawyer. We offer a different type of legal advice that is more empathetic, having been inside the companies ourselves and understanding how challenging the intersection of business and law can be. During our years in-house, we also hired lawyers and reviewed bills from external counsel, so we have a different take on the way we provide, price, and value our services.
2. Why did you start your own firm? How did you make this decision?
I started my own firm for two main reasons:
i) I wanted to create a law firm environment that I wanted to work in. I was considering having children at the time (I have since had 2) and I was aware that traditional law firms and executive positions inside companies would both require a potentially unwinnable battle between my new family and my career during critical early years.
ii) I wanted to build a team that offered exactly what I felt I needed to support me when I was in-house counsel at Universal Music for almost 8 years. What I wanted then was a team of seasoned in-house lawyers with subject matter expertise that I could call on to deliver efficient solutions, at reasonable rates, during high volume periods.
3. What are some of the benefits of running your own firm?
Having influence over what the culture is among the lawyers at Inter Alia is the main benefit. Although we all work virtually, and have since 2013, we still manage to create an environment where really great lawyers can practice law at a high level while also feeling free to be themselves, having lives and families outside the office that don’t always get the raw end of the deal, and coming up with innovative solutions for clients that might not drive tonnes of billable hours, but which are right for the client. There isn’t a lot of pretense at Inter Alia and I really love that. We’re a pretty flat structure with an “all hands on deck” mentality that we carry over into our client work.
I chose to use an association model to keep things fair and equitable and avoid situations where we have to have arguments about who is more important or valuable or higher on the totem pole. To me, that can create a toxic ego stew that is almost impossible for a business model to overcome. Our model facilitates freedom, autonomy, and personal choice about finances. We all have income targets that we set for ourselves, but that’s it. We have to deliver results and build loyal clients – those are the metrics for success at Inter Alia and they shape how we work with our clients.
4. What are some of the challenges of running your own firm? How have you tried to overcome them?
In 2013, I was told that I couldn’t run a successful law firm without a physical office. That seems kind of quaint now, in these COVID times, but it is a good example of one of the main challenges – namely the need to find strength to make your way past naysayers to do what you know in your heart is right, when there are not many other examples of people doing it. I try to always orient myself using my own personal compass rather than looking around at what others are doing. When I get too concerned about what other people are doing, I know I’m off course. Some of the things law firms do, which are billed as the “best” or the “right” way, are not good from a long-term business perspective and are also a recipe for poor mental health. Many lawyers working within the existing system know this intuitively, but yet there is massive inertia around changing the fundamentals of our business model.
5. What advice would you give to a lawyer thinking about starting their own firm?
My advice would be, if you’re going to do it, there should be a “why” that is driving you. It would be amazing if every lawyer who started his or her own firm took it as a mission to try to improve the delivery of legal services and make clients feel real value. But also, even if your why is just to be more present and accountable to your family than a traditional firm environment allows you to be, that’s an important “why” too.
I would also say, when looking at the income risk between a position at a traditional firm or company vs. the uncertainty of the entrepreneurial route, try giving real thought to both potential income and “costs”, which include time spent working, time spent away from family, missed school events and soccer games, mental and physical health, and relationship breakdown. We aren’t socialized to think about things that way – it’s always about the top line income number and the material things it translates into, and never really about what it “costs” a person to earn that income. But to me, both the costs and the revenue have to be considered in business, and it’s helpful to think of them in terms of the life we’re trying to build also.
Some more wise words from a successful law firm founder. Thanks Darlene, this was really helpful.
ICYMI our previous posts featured Amy Grubb, Emilia Coto, Karen Kwan Anderson, Shamim Ara, Mitchell Rose, Lisa Feldstein, and Ellen Low.
Stay tuned for more profiles coming soon....