Firming Up the Modern Lawyer

Can a weekend of brainstorming lead to the next legal powerhouse?

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    Spend a weekend brainstorming with a lot of like-minded folks and walk away to start your own legal powerhouse. It's an idea that's about to get tested in Philadelphia.

    Called FirmUp Weekend, the goal of the two-and-a-half day event is to teach attorneys, especially those new to the field, how to launch their own, unique firm.

    “We’re looking for people to come up with new ideas for law firms or even new ways to make legal services accessible or new ways to bring in new clients,” co-organizer and attorney Jennifer Maher says.

    Maher organized the event with Julia Shapiro, founder of lawyer-staffing website, Hire an Esquire. They see FirmUp as a way to lower the bar of entry into firm ownership for lawyers. The best-case scenario would be discovering the next Facebook of law firms in the process.

    “Attorneys have been tied down to the partner track…few people have taken initiative to think outside of it,” says Shapiro. “We thought there was a lot the legal community could learn from the tech community about collaboration, about fixing problems…and not waiting for a large company or large law firm to do it for them.”

    Similar to Startup Weekend, a global program focusing on launching a new company in 54 hours, FirmUp organizers say their law-specific event is the first of its kind. Participants will start the weekend by pitching their idea for a firm and recruit other attendees to join them.

    “So if you wanted to bring a law firm around social media – the First Amendment issues, there are employee issues that come up when you’re using social media – and you give a two-minute pitch on your idea,” Maher says.

    The newly formed groups will then go through training sessions to learn the ins and outs of launching a new firm – which organizers say is more difficult than starting up in other industries.

    “There are so many things that affect attorneys that don’t affect other companies,” said Maher. “There’s confidentiality issues that you have to deal with, there’s regulations about what you’re allowed to say in advertising – so we’re doing a full day where you would get all that information.”

    Entrepreneur and attorney Patrick FitzGerald has attended several start-up events outside the law field. He says launching your own business is daunting and that start-up events give you a motivational kick in the right direction.

    “The real goal is to get in the same room with like-minded people who have like-minded goals, concerns, fears, and to really kind of trade ideas off of them in a safe environment,” he says.

    FitzGerald launched RecycleBank, a recycling rewards program used in Philadelphia, and helped expand PhillyCarShare, Philadelphia Distilling and Nanny Caddy. Now a professor at Penn’s Wharton School, he says an event like FirmUp shows that even industries slow to adapt to modern trends, are changing.

    “I think it’s recognizing that people’s mindsets are changing about how to start every business. So if every business can look at a new way to innovate, a new way to grow quickly or more efficiently then I am all for that, and especially the legal field.”

    Shawn Huston, one of the FirmUp presenters, says the curriculum is set up so attorneys can hit the ground running when the weekend is over.

    “The curriculum is built so that way when people finish the program on Sunday that they have the tools to go and start a firm, if they so choose,” Huston says.

    The event will end Sunday with a panel of judges, including a former Pa. Supreme Court judge and two attorneys, weighing in on the concepts.

    “I think at minimum we hope that this is a networking event for people to make contacts with other people and build relationships with other people,” says Maher. “If an actual law firm is launched at this event, that would be fabulous.”

    FitzGerald hopes FirmUp will inspire people in other industries to develop similar events to spur entrepreneurial innovation.

    “If they do it in the medical field, if they do it in the accounting field, those are kind of also big, slow moving ships. If they can attack those industries the same way, that would be fantastic for everybody.”

    FirmUp Weekend will be held March 22-24 at Benjamin’s Desk, a Center City co-working space owned by Maher and her husband. Participants need to sign up to attend and pay a fee, but organizers say the event counts towards yearly continuing education credits required by the bar association.