“When companies have been cutting so many employees and budgets, which include legal budgets, I have seen—not just at Milbank but across the industry—reluctance to adapt to what should be a new model of representing the legal interests of businesses.”

So said former Milbank partner Gregory Evans, as quoted by Amanda Bronstad in a National Law Journal article dated July 7, 2010. Evans left a partnership in the litigation department of Milbank due to the “‘unbearable tension’ between big law firm profit structures and the needs of clients who face increasing economic pressures.”

I salute Mr. Evans, not only for making the move but also for being honest about his motivations; yes, I’m choosing to believe that he is being truthful, in part because I have personally witnessed—and been involved in—the same law firm dynamic. How many attorneys change firms for the stated reason that they need the “enhanced platform” of the new firm to better “serve” their clients or that they are drawn by its “entrepreneurism,” when the true reason is more money or greater prestige in the new firm; or, in the old firm, failure to produce or resentment over compensation decisions. Evans says he made the move because he wanted to enhance relationships with his clients, in part by offering more fair and reasonable fee structures: “I want to . . . connect more closely with my clients and avoid the unbearable tension at times between a big firm profit model and the needs of businesses that are suffering through difficult economic times, whose legal affairs must be managed effectively and efficiently.” This statement is interesting to me for various reasons, the primary one being the order of the principles: relationships before profit. That is important.

Frankly, my motivations for the moves I made were, at best, mixtures. At worst, and perhaps more honestly, my dominant motivations were greed and envy, not service. Yes, I sometimes saw benefits for my clients and my family, whom I am also to serve. At root, though, those benefits would accrue ultimately to me, or so I thought.

Clearly, Evans aims at profitability, but he seems to recognize that it must derive from service. He works a variety of “alternative’ fee structures. Many law firms at least pay lip-service to these arrangements, but as one of my former partners observed, alternative fee deals are intended to save money for the clients—duh—so the firm must protect itself in the negotiations. The difference is the motivation, as intimated by Evans: “I’m not sure right now that there are a lot of people in the legal marketplace who share my view of putting clients first, or putting clients above profit. I feel like I am on a frontier, but I feel this is the right time and the right place to do this.” I found that a firm’s consideration of alternative fee structures emphasized minimization of profit reduction. Never once did I hear someone ask, “Which structure will work best for this client (i.e., let’s try putting the client first) while allowing us to make a reasonable fee?” The dominant question was “How much can we charge and not run this client off?”

Judging from the article, Evans has built up a strong integrity reserve with his clients. The article quotes Don McConnell, chief environmental attorney at Sherwin-Williams, as stating “Greg can pretty much go anywhere to practice law and we will follow him. It’s all about Greg and his abilities, not the fancy firm and its high prices. In our environmental cases, we need people like Greg who put us first and get us the best results. Often, big firms just seem to get in the way of this kind of extremely valuable relationship.” Evans’ move to his own practice, for the stated reasons, would appear a logical extension of his determination to serve his clients well. Perhaps that is a requisite beginning point for mutually-beneficial relationships with our clients: we, as attorneys, should start from the perspective of service, not profit or recognition. We have a better chance of getting it right if we begin at the right place. Man, that is a challenge. I must constantly, prayerfully remind myself:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. Philippians 2:3-5.

As if the practice was not difficult enough already . . . .