Home is right where Potomac Law Group wants its workers to be
By Thomas Heath,
Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer created a stir last week when she declared that employees who had been allowed to work from home would have to start showing up at the office.
You won’t hear such orders from Ben Lieber. He has created a growing legal business built mostly on work-at-home moms who happen to be experienced lawyers.
The two-year-old Potomac Law Group matches organizations that need hourly legal expertise with a pool of lawyers who want the flexibility of working from home.
“I have built a full-service law firm without the Oriental rugs, without the expensive furniture, wall hangings, library and legal secretaries,” Lieber said.
His stable of lawyers, more than half of whom are stay-at-home moms, breaks down into two categories.
First is the 35-year-old who is seven or eight years out of law school, has children and wants a more balanced life without working 60 hours a week.
The second group is 55-year-olds who have been partners in big firms and made some money but who don’t want to spend the next 20 years in the office or recruiting clients. Or they might be high-level corporate counsels who have taken a buyout but don’t want to live out their life on the golf course or on a yoga mat.
Lieber handles all the administrative tasks and the drumming up of business. His lawyers have only one worry: satisfying the client, whether it is writing an airtight employment contract, cracking a tax problem or making sure a company complies with labor law.
Lieber, who calls himself a “disrupter,” said he has invented a new delivery vehicle in a town filled with law firms that have been slow to evolve.
Lieber charges clients around $300 an hour for his lawyers. He turns around and pays the lawyers around $125. Lieber keeps the rest, which covers salary for the firm’s three administrators, its overhead as well as reinvestment in the firm.
Lieber has seen monthly billings rise from $30,000 in January 2012 to $350,000 in January 2013. The total revenue for 2012 was $1.7 million before his lawyers received their cut.
Lieber is projecting revenue of $4 million this year, of which $1 million will hit Potomac’s bottom line. He will likely earn a mid-six-figure salary, I estimate.
Potomac Law Group has 40 lawyers in its stable, some of whom earn as much as $250,000 a year. He doesn’t hire anyone without seven years’ experience and does not offer benefits at the moment. Most don’t need benefits because they have an employed spouse who is the chief breadwinner.
Overhead is kept to a minimum. The office lease is less than $10,000 a year. Lieber works out of his home, which is near American University. The technology-savvy former rocket scientist has figured out a way to tap into the Internet cloud for most of his computer services, saving even more money.
Potomac’s 40 lawyers serve a total of 80 clients, but the work is concentrated among about half a dozen clients.
Clients range from Fortune 500 corporations looking for less-expensive legal advice to start-ups that simply can’t afford the big firms. Local clients include the Capitol Forum and Arlington-based Evolent Health, but business comes from as far away as Dallas, Georgia and San Francisco.
Just last week, Washington-based Patton Boggs LLP laid off 65 lawyers and support staff. The layoff is an example of a trend by corporations and other clients to save money, including looking for less-expensive legal services by outsourcing more tasks to hourly firms, which is the market Potomac is going after.
Lieber said he has tapped into a demand for lower legal fees among penny-wise corporations and nonprofits who find $650-an-hour legal bills hard to swallow. “Law firms don’t love me,” he said.
The Cornell University engineering graduate began his career in a factory on the outskirts of Washington, helping manage production of the Tomahawk cruise missile and the portable Stinger surface-to-air missile for a defense contractor.
After two years, he applied to law school and business school. He ended up going to Georgetown Law School, graduating in 1995. A chess player with a facility for numbers, Lieber went to work the next four years solving complex tax cases for Covington & Burling, one of Washington’s biggest law firms.
The tax work was interesting but unfulfilling. Instead of helping companies avoid taxes on transactions, he wanted to advise them on whether the transaction made sense. He joined McKinsey & Co., the consulting firm, in 1999.
“I viewed it as a career-laundering opportunity,” Lieber said. “This was my path to becoming a businessman.”
He eventually joined Axiom Law, a worldwide legal outsource firm, in 2008. He helped launch its Washington office, where he recruited lawyers. He helped manage the office. All tasks that prepared him for launching his own law firm.
“I hadn’t had any experience selling, prior to Axiom,” he said. “This gave me the confidence that I could go out on my own.”
He already had a business in mind. For years, he and his wife, who is also a lawyer, had socialized with a group of people, several of whom were fellow lawyers. Many had gone to top law schools such as Yale and Harvard, followed by high-powered, lucrative careers.
The majority were women who had pushed the pause button on their legal careers to start a family and had trouble reintegrating into the 24-7 demands following maternity leave.
At dinners and cocktail parties, “I saw all this high-end, blue chip legal talent that was idle. It seemed inefficient. I noticed the women’s predicament. The big firms could not accommodate their schedules.”
In early 2011, Lieber started calling the women, taking them for coffee and describing his vision for a legal business. He outlined an alternative to the all-or-nothing choice at many big firms, offering instead a flexible life that may not include the million-dollar partner paycheck but still paid well.
“I recruited them,” he said.
He quickly had 12 signed up.
He borrowed $75,000 from a line of credit on his home, which he used to buy malpractice insurance, put a down payment on office space, and buy computers, fax machines and scanners.
He wrote his company’s legal papers himself, forming a limited liability company in March 2011, registered in the District.
His first big breakthrough came a month later when a fellow lawyer who had a connection in Savannah got him an interview with the president of the Savannah College of Art and Design. With 11,000 students, the school has become Lieber’s third-largest client.
Lieber’s pool of lawyers now numbers 42. Most are in Washington, but some are scattered around the country in Florida, New York and Illinois.
He spends his time fielding requests from his legal clients and then assigning the jobs to the lawyers who have the appropriate expertise. Most assignments can be as short as half a day and as long as six months.
The key is making sure his legal stable is qualified and engaged. Most of his hires come through word of mouth from neighbors and friends.
Marissa Mayer may rightly want her people in the office so they can be more interactive and creative. But that’s not a prerequisite at Potomac Law Group.
“You don’t need five lawyers in a room to modify a warranty clause,” Lieber said.