When Barbara Eyman left her equity partnership at Ropes & Gray to open up a two-lawyer health policy boutique, the veteran Washington lawyer suddenly found herself grappling with a series of firsts: lining up a logo designer and IT consultant, getting the phones and computers to work, and tracking down a coffee machine for the office.
“It’s tending to all the administrative details I was blind to before,” Eyman said.
The new firm, Eyman Associates, opened its doors in November, and has brought other big changes for Eyman, who until then had spent her 20-year legal career at large law firms — first at Powell Goldstein (now part of Bryan Cave), then at Ropes & Gray.
Gone are the army of associates and staff, sprawling offices, and billing and management structure of a large institutional firm. Now Eyman, along with associate Sarah Mutinsky and office administrator Cathy Kalimon, is running the show out of a 1,300-square-foot office next to Union Station.
What hasn’t changed much is Eyman’s client list. She took with her the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems (NAPH) — for which she is also general counsel — and several large health systems including the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Utah Health Sciences Center, the University of Washington and the University of Arizona Health Network. The focus of her practice remains health care law and policy, which includes consulting on the impact of health care policies on hospitals and health systems, and helping clients develop policies to propose to Congress.
Eyman’s main reason for branching out echoes that of many big-law-partners-turned- entrepreneurs: she was getting priced out of the kind of work she wanted to do.
“This move was not about money — I probably would make more money staying at Ropes & Gray,” she said. “It was more about being able to do the kind of work I want to do, for the kind of clients I want to work for without so much worry about firm profitability.”
Eyman declined to comment on specific billing arrangements, but said her fees at the new firm are “substantially lower” now, and that her firm is more flexible about using flat and blended fees. She maintains informal ties with Ropes & Gray, and they refer clients back and forth on some matters.
“I had been doing lots of policy work for NAPH on a retainer basis, and it was getting harder and harder to do that work within the big law firm setting, to make the economics work out for the firm and the client,” Eyman said. “At a large firm, when the hospitals I work with are choosing to use outside counsel, they’re watching their budgets more and more closely. With lower pricing, I’d be more competitive to be involved in more projects with clients that I might’ve gotten priced out of otherwise.”
Bruce Siegel, president and chief executive of NAPH, which continues to work with Ropes & Gray on some matters, said staying with Eyman was critical to the trade group’s mission, particularly in retaining her expertise in hospital financing, Medicaid and insurance law.
“She is the go-to person for this,” he said. “These are very technical issues and she has a 19-year history in this area. She’s a sharp lawyer, but she has lots of policy credibility.”
Eyman is entering a field already littered with many independent health consulting and policy shops. The abundance of health care-related policy work was on the upswing even before the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010. Now, the market is ripe for health consultants, lawyers and lobbyists to carve out a successful niche practice, said Ivan Adler, a headhunter for lawyers and lobbyists at the McCormick Group.
“Health care has really lent itself to be a robust area for solo practitioners or boutique firms,” he said. “It’s been such a robust area as far as lobbying and regulatory work in general. And there aren’t a lot of people who have a particular, high level of expertise. So if you’re a [highly specialized] solo practitioner or you have two or three people, you can do very well.”
Adler added that with the Supreme Court poised to hear arguments in March on federal law requiring people to have health insurance, the demand for health policy lawyers and consultants could grow.
“It’s still open for people that have a particular expertise because Lord knows what’s going to happen with Obamacare,” he said. “Depending on what comes out of [the Supreme Court], there could be even more business.”