Alternative model law firm makes push into Washington


Axiom Law’s Washington staff includes general manager Will McKinnon and attorneys Laura Yeo and Jeniffer Roberts. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)
September 11, 2011

They have no partner structure, their attorneys work mostly from home or clients’ offices, and they bill at half the rates of big law firms.

Two years after jumping into the Washington market during the depths of the recession, ­­­Axiom Law, a legal services provider with an un­or­tho­dox business model, is making major inroads here.

Last month, Axiom reported 80 percent year-over-year revenue growth in its local office, and in-house lawyers at some of the region’s biggest companies are turning to the company as they look to trim legal costs.

Axiom is not technically a law firm: its attorneys don’t do litigation or give legal advice. But they do offer lower rates (typically between $150 and $275 per hour) for project-based work on transactional matters, contracts and regulatory and compliance-related research — the type of work businesses want done by experienced, skilled attorneys but don’t want to pay big firm rates for.

“They exist in a good middle space for us, which is not quite the bet-the-company type matters where you hire the big law firms for $500 to $700 an hour,” said Jeff Peters, associate general counsel for the Gaithersburg-based pharmaceutical manufacturer MedImmune, which has used Axiom lawyers for transactional and contract work. “It’s in this space of doing some medium-level, semi-routine matters with people who have a good mix of law firm and in-house practical experience.”

Axiom says it has worked with a third of the top 25 local companies by revenue (The Washington Post is a client). Its client list also includes Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse, among others.

Axiom is different from a staffing firm that maintains a roster of contract attorneys to pair with clients in need. Instead, Axiom employs attorneys — 600 worldwide, including 30 in Washington — full time. Most have at least eight years of law firm or in-house legal experience and make an average salary of $200,000 a year. Many come from in-house teams at Sprint, Nokia, Goldman Sachs and law firms including Davis Polk, Sullivan & Cromwell, Cleary Gottleib and WilmerHale.

The companies that use Axiom say it is more of a complement to outside counsel than a replacement.

“We haven’t abandoned the law firms by any means as a part of our strategy when we go outside for support,” said Chad Jerdee, deputy general counsel at Accenture, which has used Axiom since 2007 on short-term work that takes between one and 12 months to complete. “They’re very good for certain projects where we need temporary help for a specific area where it doesn’t make sense to hire a long-term employee, or to backstop our capacity for spikes in volume for things our in-house capacity exceeds.”

The firm began in New York in 2000 and opened its Washington office with one attorney in January 2009. It has since grown to 30, and is projecting 100 percent growth in the third quarter compared to the same period last year, thanks to major contracts that began in June and July, said general manager Will McKinnon. Across its nine offices in the United States, Hong Kong and London, the company has exploded from $1 million in revenue in 2002 to $80 million last year.

“We bring a different perspective to getting legal work done. That’s why we can bill lower,” McKinnon said.

Other low-cost firms (Paragon in San Francisco, FSB Legal in Atlanta, Outside GC in Boston and Philips & Reiter in Houston) have created successful niches in regional markets, and observers say the model has staying power.

“I think the world is ready for alternative methods of legal service delivery other than the traditional law firm,” said Jeffrey Lowe, managing partner of the Washington office of legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. “I think the clients are much more sophisticated and well-informed than they used to be.”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for Capital Business, which she joined in 2011. She was previously a reporter at the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, covering LA civil courts and labor and employment law. Before that, she reported for the business and metro desks at the LA Times. She has interned at newspapers in Detroit, Wichita, Kan., and San Mateo, Calif. She’s a San Jose native and UC Berkeley graduate.
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