Practising in association gives lawyers best of both worlds
By AdvocateDaily.com Staff
Lawyers who practise in association with other legal professionals can reap some of the benefits of a larger firm environment while retaining control over their businesses, Mississauga real estate and immigration lawyer Jia Junaid tells AdvocateDaily.com.
Junaid, principal of Atlas Law, says the traditional LLP structure of law firms is an increasingly rare breed in Canada.
“The legal landscape is changing, and what I’m witnessing is the rise of association practices,” she says. “That old style with partners gathering to determine how to split the income and allocate resources has its benefits, but it’s not as attractive to millennial lawyers who are embracing technology and want to be able to make decisions quickly with a much higher degree of flexibility.”
Junaid says practising in association offers younger lawyers a chance to have the best of both worlds.
“We’re social creatures, so when you get a bunch of lawyers in a loose — or alternatively, a more integrated — association like mine, sharing space and expenses, you get the nice parts of office dynamics, like the water cooler discussions, and an office manager taking care of things, and cross-practice learning,” she says. “Apart from that, there are the tax benefits of maintaining your own practice, as well as the speed and flexibility that comes with calling the shots.”
Junaid currently works in association with three other lawyers. They operate in different spheres of the law and have come to an agreement about who practices which areas of law, enabling their practices to complement one another, rather than having to worry about competition between them.
“Instead of three lawyers going and setting up shop together, we’re essentially retaining our own practices, but in a small group setting, while making the pie bigger for everyone to eat off,” she says.
Junaid likens her association to the team approach that medical professionals take to cancer care — something she experienced first-hand when her mother was diagnosed late last year.
“You have oncologists, radiologists and surgeons involved. Each one has their own specialty, and nobody is equipped to make all the decisions. Every person does their part, while the team comes together to deliver the best solutions for the individual patient,” she says.
“It struck me that we’re doing the same thing for our clients. If I have a permanent resident client with a criminal matter that may affect his admissibility to Canada, I’m not going to do his bail hearing, but I can send him to the criminal lawyer I’m practising in association with. I retain a greater degree of control over the navigation of the file while making a residual fee off the referral. I can also provide the client with focused experience in his or her multifaceted problem. It’s a win-win-win.
“There’s a high degree of strategic collaboration that allows us to draw from the experience each of us has developed in our chosen practice areas,” Junaid adds. “We’ll even go to the extent of generating business for one another, which creates an additional revenue stream in terms of referral fees.”
Still, she says the arrangements do not come without risk, adding that lawyers can’t just team up with anyone, and should take care to pick the right people when setting up the association.
“It really only works if there’s a foundation of trust between the parties, and an openness to communication,” says Junaid, who adds that clients must also be consulted about waivers on confidentiality when they are being served by more than one lawyer in the office.
To minimize the impact of inevitable friction in the relationship, she and her colleagues committed their understandings to writing, with an agreement that covers the departure of parties, the arrival of new lawyers, non-competition, and dispute resolution.
While attending to her mother’s care last year, Junaid was often out of the office. She believes the association practice helped save her business and her sanity.
"One of the lawyers has power of attorney over my practice and he was able to jump right in and direct staff to complete matters while I was gone. I'm grateful that the associate lawyers were there when I needed them and because of the non-compete, non-poaching agreements, I didn’t have to worry whether my practice would still be there when I got back.
“We have developed a real sense of being a family and really 'being there' for each other. It’s great to know that we can enjoy all the flexibility, control and decisive action that comes from being a sole practitioner, while creating a culture of collaboration and friendship with fellow lawyers that is invaluable to professional development and makes work a fun place, where we look forward to going.”
Junaid likens partnerships to marriage.
"Once you’re in, it can be difficult to get out unscathed," she says. "Lawyers can also view associations like courtship — if you've been doing it a long time and doing it well, there’s always the chance that if lawyers go down the road to partnership, they would have already test-driven their work relationship, which makes for better firm structures and relationships that have more longevity, should they decide later to merge their practices."