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"Successfully Orbiting the Mothership in a Satellite Office"

April 22, 2022

Phil Karter article on "Successfully Orbiting the Mothership in a Satellite Office"

Legal Intelligencer

Reprinted with permission from the April 8, 2022, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or reprints@alm.com.

Successfully Orbiting the Mothership in a Satellite Office

By Phil Karter

In the modern world of law firm practice, the proliferation of lawyers working remotely, whether for traditional firms, or for the much smaller percentage of virtual or cloud-based firms may make it seem as if the traditional model of reporting to the office for work every day is a relic of the past. Much has been written over the course of the pandemic about how this new paradigm is here to stay and how the ability to work remotely has become an important component of a firm’s recruiting toolkit.

However, for those of us who have spent a significant portion of our careers practicing out of smaller satellite offices of large and mid-size firms, the concept of not being within close geographic proximity to the vast majority of one’s colleagues is not all that unfamiliar. As satellites are concerned, Sputnik may have captured the world’s attention when it was first launched, but in today’s legal world, the key consideration facing satellite offices is how they can maintain the attention of the mothership (or perhaps multiple motherships), and how the satellite’s lawyers, particularly its junior ones, can navigate a successful career trajectory in what is oftentimes a lower profile environment.

There are many reasons why law firms launch or acquire satellite offices; a fertile market to expand the firm’s core competencies (e.g., energy law in Texas, government contracts law in Washington, D.C., agriculture law in the Midwest, etc.) or replicate the success of a specialized practice in a geographic area that is underserved; the attraction of adding valued lawyers and practices located in another city who don’t want to relocate, or conversely, retaining valued lawyers who wish to relocate but remain with the firm; or the appeal of being within near proximity to important clients or industry centers, to cite a few examples.

For lawyers contemplating practicing in a satellite office, particularly those who have always worked in their law firm’s primary office, there are important considerations that should be explored, including the following:

  • Is the firm’s management structure centralized, or is power and authority fairly distributed to the satellite offices (including participation on governing committees)? For example, do attorneys practicing in a different geographic region have the ability to customize their practices, such as setting their own billing rates to be competitive in that region, or exercising wide latitude in recruiting laterals and practice groups? Having a representative voice and vote on a firm’s management committee can ensure that the satellite’s “signal” is being received loud and clear by the mothership.
  • Does the firm’s compensation structure depend on whether one is “in the club” (e., the “out of sight, out of mind” theory), or are there objective performance metrics that are easily applied throughout a firm’s offices without the need to have regular “face-time” at the command center?
  • Does the firm maintain a profit-center accounting approach through which it keeps track of business generated by each office? This can tend to create a culture of competition where lawyers in different offices become stingy about hoarding work or give rise to concerns that a satellite might not be given sufficient resources because it is deemed “unprofitable.” Problems of this nature tend to dissipate for firms with multiple satellite offices that follow the “all for one, one for all” philosophy of practice and focus on firm and department profitability rather than office profitability.
  • Are the lawyers (and especially firm leaders) committed to interoffice collaboration and cross-selling, or is the satellite hurtling through space more or less on its own? A good indicator of this is whether firms put together multi-office teams to staff legal projects or make pitches for new work.
  • Are the resources of the firm fairly disbursed throughout the offices, or is the tendency to devote a disproportionate share to the offices that are most profitable or visible? One reason small independent firms gravitate toward becoming new satellites of a much larger firm is because such a move can ease the administrative burden of managing every aspect of the firm, provide vastly greater resources to service clients more efficiently, and demonstrate the needed “bench strength” to give clients and prospective clients comfort that the firm’s resources can meet and grow along with their needs.

For junior lawyers, additional considerations worth exploring include the following:

  • Do they have a local mentor or sponsor that can and will successfully champion their promotion within the firm, and are long-term prospects overly dependent on one’s proximity to the mothership?
  • Will they have opportunities to regularly meet, work and develop personal and strategic relationships with more senior lawyers in other offices? Guidance from a wider variety of lawyers (particularly when working in a small satellite) can be critical, not only in terms of providing greater opportunities to enhance practice skills or be exposed to different practice areas the satellite may not offer, but also in learning about how to succeed at the firm.
  • Is work-flow skillfully managed on a firm and department-wide basis as opposed to an office-wide basis, and do department heads take responsibility for lawyers in their departments without regard to the office in which such lawyers practice? Firms that hold regular video departmental meetings including satellite office lawyers tend to show a greater commitment to this objective than those that have little interaction between offices.
  • Are junior lawyers in satellite offices provided the same skills training and mentoring opportunities as their primary office counterparts? With video training this is less of an issue than in the past, but there is sometimes no substitute for sitting in a room with a more experienced lawyer to pick his or her brain about how to approach a problem.
  • How do the atmospherics of a satellite office compare to those inside the primary office? It is not uncommon for junior lawyers who have been temporarily detailed to a satellite office (either physically or in terms of working on project assignments) to observe that the satellite may have a less formal and bureaucratic culture, which enables them to have more direct and less intimidating contacts with the supervising lawyer and other partners. Conversely, satellite office lawyers may have to acclimate themselves to a more formal work environment when visiting or moving to the primary office.
  • Is there flexibility to transfer between offices if a lawyer finds one environment more desirable than the other?
  • Is compensation uniform across the firm’s offices or are there local adjustments to account for competition in attracting junior lawyers in higher cost-of-living cities?
  • Does the satellite have its share of lawyers with national reputations that can maintain or enhance, rather than diminish, the prestige of working in the satellite rather than the primary office?

Although the distinctions between practicing law in a firm’s primary office or a satellite office are important to think through, a satellite office career can be both gratifying and liberating, with less bureaucracy and politicking than may exist in the firm’s principal office. It can also offer a “best of both worlds” bridge between practicing in a single-office small firm versus practicing in a larger firm’s primary office, while benefitting from many of the attendant resources, prestige, visibility, depth and diversity of a large firm that are attractive to lawyers and clients alike.

Phil Karter is managing shareholder of the Philadelphia Office of Chamberlain Hrdlicka specializing in tax controversy and litigation. He is a former trial attorney with the Department of Justice Tax Division.  He may be reached at pkarter@chamberlainlaw.com.