Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Legal Office of the Future?

There’s a new law office on 24th St. N.W. and M St., but you won’t find any partners roaming the halls. There aren’t any secretaries there either. The entire office, in fact, is only about 1,000 square feet.

It’s the newly opened D.C. location of Axiom, the law firm that started in New York seven years ago and touts itself as an innovative, less expensive alternative to traditional firms. Axiom, which employs 216 lawyers, doesn’t have a partnership, doesn’t use the billable hour, and its lawyers work from home or in the offices of clients. The new D.C. digs, like Axiom’s other offices in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and London, serve largely as a hub for taking client calls that are then filtered out to the firm’s remote attorneys.

Will McKinnon, general manager in Washington, says he expects the office to be fully up and running by January. Presently, he and the office’s practice management head, Ben Lieber, are focused on recruiting. McKinnon says 26 lawyers have either joined or are in the final stages of accepting offers to start at Axiom. The office will have capabilities in transactional work, intellectual property, securities, and labor and employment. Axiom also hopes to get into government affairs and government contracts work in the District.

Lieber says the recruits are dominantly coming from large Washington and New York-based firms. “The household names,” he says, though he wouldn’t specify further. Lieber himself was once an associate at Covington & Burling, though he was most recently general counsel of the D.C. lobbying firm Carmen Group. Lawyers in Axiom’s other offices come from firms such as Latham & Watkins, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Lieber says Big Law attorneys are attracted to Axiom’s flexibility, since unlike at traditional firms, they get to choose their hours and client assignments.

They also escape the pressure of the billable hour, since Axiom bills clients by the week. McKinnon says Axiom’s rates break down to “one-half to one-third of the benchmark rate for big firms, which is generally $500 an hour.” Lieber says firmwide revenues will break $50 million this year, and that the average Axiom lawyer makes $210,000 a year.

It may be pulling talent from Big Law, but Axiom is a long way from becoming a serious competitor with traditional high-end firms. It operates a bit like a contract-attorney service, since Axiom lawyers are often assigned to work for months in the in-house legal departments of clients.

McKinnon and Lieber say the firm has not yet established clients in the D.C. area, but that it’s eyeing Fortune 1000 companies that operate here, and even federal government agencies. Axiom’s Web site lists companies such as Bank of America, NBC Universal, Sun Microsystems, and Yahoo as clients. by