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Law firm management

Flexing its muscles

Fenwick & West’s Attorney-for-Hire unit thrives amid legal industry changes

Several years back, West Coast law firm Fenwick & West started hearing rumblings from some of its bread-and-butter clients — small or start-up tech companies that required a lot of legal transaction and licensing work. Then Fenwick noticed that some of these clients were sending that work out to smaller firms and even solo practitioners, because they could not afford to hire a full-time law firm of Fenwick’s  status.

In response, the firm took an unusual tack. It thought small.

The firm created FLEX by Fenwick, a way to recapture those drifting clients by offering high-quality legal work done by a stable of attorneys who carry the Fenwick label for a price considerably lower – sometimes as much as half the cost – than hiring the full firm.

“This really came out of us looking at what our clients needed, how their businesses were evolving and how they consumed legal services,” said Ralph M. Pais, a Partner in Fenwick’s Technology Transactions unit and the person who launched FLEX by Fenwick in 2010. “At the very beginning, we focused FLEX on principally doing commercial transactions for technology companies.” Far from a typical staffing shop, the FLEX program allows clients to bring in a highly trained, experienced legal team or a single lawyer, depending on the client’s need. The typical FLEX client would be one that needs a lot of day-to-day commercial work done, but is not yet ready to build an in-house legal function. FLEX attorneys work with the client, at the client’s office and during the client’s business hours, becoming a part of (or the entirety of) the client’s legal team.

That was more than five years ago, and now the FLEX program has begun flexing its own muscles within the firm, benefiting from a legal environment that thrives on innovation, flexibility and, of course, reduced pricing. FLEX is growing at a rate of about 40% to 50% annually, and has recently brought in new management to carry the firm-within-a-firm to the next level. (FLEX’s financials roll up into Fenwick & West, however, the firm does not disclose the unit’s revenue or profit.)

In early December, Fenwick announced that Carole Coplan would be the new general manager of FLEX by Fenwick. Coplan comes from the corporate side, previously holding several leadership positions at top tech companies, including vice president of business development at Cryptography Research, a subsidiary of tech licensing giant Rambus. She also served as general counsel at both Responsys and Epylon.

Coplan said that today the majority of FLEX’s work is in commercial tech transactions. “But  it’s become a little bit more nuanced in ways that the market has shifted and grown,” said Coplan. “We’re seeing requests for other types of work  as well, sometimes employment-related, sometimes litigation, a lot of corporate M&A, and securities work.”

Indeed, Fenwick and its FLEX program seem to  be benefiting from staking out this outlier position. Where many law firms trimmed away practice areas or types of client work that they deemed unprofitable, FLEX allowed Fenwick to hang onto its licensing and commercial transaction franchise and now expand into areas that either are being neglected by big law or are seeing very robust activity. Either way, FLEX fills the need for those clients who desperately require the service but balk at the big firm price tag.

Coplan agreed. “We’re growing in response to those evolutionary trends and we’ll continue to look for the types of work and services that our clients need.”

Currently, Fenwick’s FLEX program has 80-plus attorneys under its brand, but the firm expects that to increase by 50% to about 120 attorneys within the next few years. That’s a long way  from the original six attorneys FLEX had when  it launched. (FLEX attorneys are not counted in Fenwick & West’s attorney total of 350.) “What’s happened over a period of five years is that FLEX has started to develop its own brand in the marketplace,” he said. “So people know that we’re there.”

Pais described the typical FLEX lawyer as either a solo practitioner with an active practice, a current in-house lawyer who wants to branch out or a lawyer who is looking for a flexible part-time work schedule. In each, these lawyers look at FLEX as a way of gaining exposure to clients they might not otherwise have an opportunity to work with, he said. “For example, if you’d like to do contract work for companies like Airbnb or GoPro or Facebook®, you might not get through that door on your own, but those companies are our clients.” Another advantage for these attorneys is that FLEX handles all the business development and billing and collection aspects of the profession that many attorneys don’t relish.

These lawyers are vetted and tested according to very high standards before becoming FLEX participants, which has allowed the firm to cite quality as the main differentiator between FLEX and other temp lawyer operations. “The quality really sums it up,” said Coplan. “The lawyers we bring to our bench have a combination of good school credentials and a background that includes law firm and in-house experience, so that we have confidence when deploying them with the client, that they’ll be successful.”

Clients want to work with FLEX, because they know that its attorneys are backed by the Fenwick brand; and the client, in most cases, also may be a Fenwick client that’s using other parts of the law firm, she explained. “It creates a much closer relationship, much more so than if a client was just to work with some random outside solo practitioner or someone who may be of lesser quality from a temp agency.”

Going forward, Fenwick is expecting continued growth from FLEX, and Coplan noted the unit’s client mix may continue to evolve over time. “Future growth is going to come from both the firm’s in-house corporate practice, and I also see there is going to be continued growth from companies that may not yet be Fenwick clients.”


About the authors

Carole CoplanCarole Coplan is the General Manager of Fenwick & West’s FLEX program and works out of the firm’s San Francisco office. Coplan previously served as VP of Business Development at Cryptography Research (acquired by Rambus); General Counsel at Responsys (now part of Oracle) and Epylon (acquired by Accenture); and has also practiced in-house at other Bay Area tech companies.

 

Ralph PaisRalph Pais is a Partner in the Technology Transactions practice in Fenwick & West’s San Francisco office. Pais has extensive experience counseling clients at all stages of their growth in the commercialization of their intellectual property and associated business transactions. In addition, he works on the intellectual property aspects of significant corporate transactions including mergers, acquisitions and spinouts.

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