My role as CEO is not to get involved in the legal matters of the clients. My role is to represent the clients to the lawyers - to help the lawyers at Tandem understand the clients and their perspective - to be a communications bridge.
Washington DC-based Tandem Legal Group is a corporate and commercial law firm serving young and fast growing companies. Tandem’s co-founder and CEO, Michael McDevitt, is not a lawyer.
Randy Price and I founded Tandem Legal Group in 2012. Our objective was to create a law firm that had a better understanding of and alignment with its client base than most other firms have today.
I am not a lawyer. My career has been in business. My two most recent positions were as a financial analyst at a private equity fund, and then, for about 10 years, CEO and CFO of a large publicly traded company.
In those positions I worked extensively with lawyers. But I struggled to communicate with them — they never seemed to understand the core purpose for which I was hiring them and this lead to a lot of frustration for me. I tried many attorneys at many firms, trying to find the right person. My experience was that the good attorneys who also understood my business were no longer practicing law — they felt that they had to choose between law and business, and they chose business.
At Tandem Legal, my role as CEO is not to get involved in the legal matters of the clients. My role is to represent the clients to the lawyers — to help the lawyers at Tandem understand the clients and their perspective — to be a communications bridge between our lawyers and the clients. My entire reason for being at Tandem is because I have this kind of business capability and understanding.
Our clients come to us seeking legal advice, yes, but also more than that. We are a trusted resource — we offer a place where they are comfortable seeking more general advice and we don’t hesitate to open our Rolodex to make helpful introductions.
More specifically, I take on an advisory role with the CEOs of the companies we service. We don’t charge our clients extra for this. These are individuals that we want to invest in because their success leads to our success.
Our clients are fast growing companies, and when they need something, they need it fast. We offer clients access to a trusted circle of the different resources and expertise that they need (operations, marketing, finance and fund raising,…) — a circle of people that can communicate very quickly and very effectively. This helps companies get through challenging times much better than a bunch of one-off, isolated relationships with no communication amongst them.
I like to tell the story of how Randy Price proposed that I join him to co-found Tandem Legal. When he learned that the DC rules permit a limited form of nonlawyer ownership of law firms, he called me and said “Hey Mike, you know how you can’t stand working with attorneys?” and I responded “yes I am very much aware of how much I can’t stand working with attorneys.”
He told me that he had found a way for me to fix it — I could stop complaining about attorneys and instead do something to make a difference. “With your experience as a CEO, you can help us to understand what the CEOs of our clients want from us.”
I was intrigued by what Randy was proposing. Legal services certainly were not my sweet spot. But I liked the idea of getting into something completely different, and I liked the idea of getting involved with a services business, something that until then I had not had a lot of experience with. I wanted to see if I could apply the best practices of a non-services business to improve a services business.
Our management structure is evolving. We started with a flat management structure, with everyone reporting to me, just to see how things went and what our pain points were. This has led us to create three roles: head of marketing, head of operations, head of finance. These individuals are attorneys. They spend 90% of their time with their lawyer hats on, servicing clients. The other 10% they have executive-in-training hats on, while I strive to teach them what their respective executive roles should be.
When we are working together, we clarify if we are in Mode A or Mode B. If we are in Mode A, then the heads of marketing, operations and finance are reporting into me, as executives report into their CEO. On the other hand, if we are in Mode B, then we go back to a flat legal organization.
With this structure, our lawyers are learning business not just through their clients, but through the operation of their firm. They have found this to be a valuable experience.
There are two owners of the firm — myself and Randy Price. The other attorneys in the firm share in profits but they do not own shares in the firm.
Tandem seeks to succeed via the success of its clients. As a part of this, our lawyers sometimes take equity ownership in the clients we are serving. In this way, much of Tandem’s resources is invested back into its client base, with the result that the value of Tandem is in those shares and not in the shares of Tandem itself. Our financial success is coming from the financial success of our clients.
It is extremely challenging to be the only nonlawyer in the room. Luckily, with my experience, I can offer Tandem lawyers something that they want to learn. My challenge with the Tandem lawyers is to break down the mindset that they gained after so many years in a big law firm. Their instinct is to see how risky something is and to see all the reasons why something won’t work. I help them to see past that, to see opportunities and why something can work.
We have heard critiques on our model. People say that law should not be run as a business, as it can cloud the judgment of the attorneys. In my opinion, it is preposterous to claim that the law industry is not a business. Law is being run as a business today, a very profitable business for those at the top — it’s just being run as a business that has no understanding of its clientele.
Again, I am not a lawyer. I do not get involved in how our lawyers make ethical decisions with respect to our clients. They are the lawyers, and they understand the legal and ethical rules better than I do. It is crazy to think that I would try to influence our lawyers to act unethically. It’s the reputation of our firm that is on the line.
On the other hand, how Tandem as an entity is run — what our strategy is, what our goals are, what types of clients we serve — that is business not law, and of course I get involved in that.
For full disclosure, to date I have not received any payment from Tandem for my role. Tandem’s money is going back into our business and into our clients. Someday down the road I might take a salary or a share of the profits, but that is not for today. I did not get into this for the money, I got into this for the challenge — how to take a business mind-set into a law firm, and help change the mind-set of lawyers so they can run their firms in a more client friendly manner.
It is a popular thing nowadays for law firms to bring a nonlawyer into a law firm on a salaried basis to take on a role of CEO, or COO. This is very different than what we are at Tandem. In fact, what they are doing is a very tricky thing. I think that such a person would struggle to gain the authority and respect they would need to be effective in their roles amongst the attorneys. They would probably be little more than figureheads trying to bring best practices into the firm, with little or no accountability. Also, in essence, they cannot be paid based on their success, as they would have to be on a salary, and not rewarded for profitability or revenue growth. That is only for attorneys to gain from. In my case, coming in both with my level of experience and as an owner instead of as a salaried employee makes a big difference.