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In the Trenches: Building a Better Law Firm
By Aleksandra Todorova

Published: September 29, 2005

IN THE MID-1990S, Joanne Sternlieb, then a successful New York lawyer at the prestigious firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, ate most of her meals sitting at her desk. Sixty-hour weeks spent poring over the nuances of trust and estate law were commonplace.

Then life intervened.

Sternlieb's first daughter, Michelle, was born in 1998. Sternlieb knew she'd no longer be able to keep up that pace at work, so she took a job working part-time as an estate planner with Neuberger Berman Trust Co. (now Lehman Brothers Trust Co.). In 2001, her second daughter, Sarah, was born.

Sternlieb enjoyed her work at Neuberger, but she missed the law. And after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she decided life was too short for her not to pursue her dreams. So she decided to start a law firm that could accommodate her busy schedule.

For the past three years, flexibility has been the operative word in the Law Offices of Joanne R. Sternlieb. The 44-year-old mom builds her workday around her daughters' schedules, dropping them off and picking them up from school and attending school events. She does most of her work, like writing wills and trusts, while the kids are at school or with a babysitter. When they want to play, she's ready.

It's a lifestyle that Sternlieb's associates also enjoy. Soon after she started her practice, Sternlieb was so inundated with work from friends, clients and former co-workers that she needed help. But instead of hiring lawyers to work for her full- or even part-time, she decided to have independent contractors working from their own homes and on their own time.

Needless to say, her colleagues are mostly mothers with experience in big law firms who have also decided to leave the grueling hours of a full-time job to be with their children. Sternlieb works with four lawyers, all based in Manhattan, and has two administrative assistants and a law clerk. "Between email, fax and phone, I've never even met one of my assistants, who's on Long Island. We've spoken to each other umpteen times, I know about her family, her children, but we've never actually met," she says in her typical fast-paced New York-speak.

It's a model she wants to see other law practices adopt as well. "It allows [mothers] to get their intellectual stimulation, to make some money, to keep their finger in the law, but it also allows them to be home with their children and do what they want to do," she says.

Better yet, it helps Sternlieb keep her fixed costs low. Because she and her colleagues work from home, all Sternlieb has to pay for is office supplies. She often meets with clients at their homes. When she needs more polished space, she rents an office on Park Avenue, on an hourly basis.

She pays her associates a preset fee for each project they do, based on the nature of the job and the time it will take them to do it. She also charges her clients on a fee-for-service basis, unlike the big law firms that charge by the hour and require their employees to keep track of their time in 15-minute increments. "It's nice for my clients to know that they have a set amount that they're going to pay," she says. "We discuss it before I bill them anything, and there are no surprises." The only time Sternlieb charges by the hour is when she does estate administration, which is basically probating a client's will in court and distributing the estate after the client dies.

It has proven to be a successful formula for Sternlieb. Since 2003, she has doubled her gross income and now earns close to what she used to make at her part-time job at Neuberger. Granted, that's still about half of what she made at the law firm. But she also now shares her dinner with her family - not her co-workers. Not a bad trade.

Legally Brunette

Your name: Joanne R. Sternlieb

Name of business: Law Offices of Joanne R. Sternlieb

Year founded: 2002

Business type (industry): Law

Location: New York City

No. of employees: Seven (independent contractors)

Web address: www.jsestateplanning.com

Please tell us a little bit about your business. What is its purpose? Who are your clients or customers? What is your mission statement?

I run a small trust-and-estates law firm. My clients are individuals who need estate planning, and individuals, banks and trust companies who need legal advice in connection with administering trusts and estates.

I have a flex-time practice. All of the lawyers (four) and the two assistants who work for me work out of their own homes, on their own schedules, whenever they want. It doesn't matter to me if they work at two in the morning or two in the afternoon. They are each independent contractors and work flexible schedules. There are no set hours, no billable-hour requirements, no guaranteed hours, and no guaranteed pay. My goal is to use my firm as a role model for other law firms to show that you can create an environment where women (and men if they so choose) can work flexible schedules and be successful.

Why did you choose to go into business for yourself?

So that I could have more flexibility and work-life balance - and to get back into the practice of law. After working at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett for 12 years as an associate and then counsel, I went to work for Neuberger Berman Trust Co., where I advised clients on estate planning and trust and estate administration. However, I wasn't practicing law, and I missed it. Although I had an amazing part-time schedule at the trust company, I wanted more flexibility in the days and hours that I worked.

What was your biggest challenge during the start-up phase?

My biggest challenge was doing all the work myself - the legal work, marketing, billing and ordering supplies. I didn't realize that I would have so much business so quickly and how much non-legal work was involved in running my own law firm.

What's the smartest move you've made regarding your small business?

The smartest move I made was to create a flex-time practice and to hire incredibly smart, motivated women to work with me. The flex-time practice arrangement is wonderful because I have virtually no overhead and fixed costs - but access to amazing attorneys and assistants when I need them.

What's the most foolish?

The most foolish thing that I did when I started was to work all the time.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

How much time it would take to run a small law practice. I didn't really understand that there was so much involved in running a small business.

What keeps you up at night? (Which costs and expenses are you most worried about? What do you see as the biggest threats to your business?)

What keeps me up at night is wondering how I'm going to do everything that I need to do. I've recently met with a wonderful former associate from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett who is going to work with me - which should make me sleep better at night.

Where do you look for business advice? (Mentors? Industry or trade groups? Family and friends?)

I am very fortunate to have wonderful mentors from Simpson Thacher, other trust and estate lawyers who have their own practices, former colleagues from the trust company, and my accountant to look to for business advice. I also look to my friends and family for advice.

What is the best business book you've ever read? What did you like about it?

I hate to admit it but I don't think that I've ever read a business book. I do read legal publications and trust and estate magazines that often offer advice to lawyers who are starting their own businesses.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Technology has been incredibly helpful to me - the BlackBerry, cellphone, and fax are invaluable to me and allow my practice to operate the way it does.