There’s a new law firm on the block here in Washington D.C., reports the Washington Post — easily recognized by its sunny yellow bike. The cycle analogy is a bit of a play on words, since here, the BIKE stands as an acronym for the Tandem’s tagline, “Be yourself, Innovate, Kindness and Engagement.” Not surprisingly, Tandem boasts an “anti-law firm culture” — which apparently shorthands for no suits, funky work space (ala start-up or Ally McBeal , your pick) and a healthy disdain for how “other” lawyers do things.
Tandem is structured differently from traditional law firms as well. D.C. Ethics Rule 5.4(b) allows for non-lawyer partners, provided that they are also firm employees (as opposed to passive investors) and provide services that “assist the organization in providing legal services.” Capitalizing on this rule, one of Tandem’s co-founders, Michael McDevitt is non-lawyer and former CEO of a successful weight-loss company while the other co-founder, Randy Price brings six years experience as a big law associate. The remaining firm members are comprised of a mix of big firm expatriates and management types, including two with deep roots in e-discovery.
But is Tandem a law firm? Well, sure – it provides legal services to clients even though it also includes business and strategic advice. Tandem’s approach makes sense. Law doesn’t operate in a vacuum and at times (as is often the case with cease and desist letters ), lawyers need to ensure that they fully protect their clients’ legal rights without destroying the company’s image. In short, taking both an analytical and holistic approach to a case is part of being a good lawyer.
On the other hand, Tandem sends mixed messages. Tandem’s LinkedIn profile categorizes the firm as providing “management consulting,” not legal service. Tandem’s webite describes that the firm “combines legal services, business consulting and growth capital.” Finally, Tandem accepts compensation in equity which can be a smart strategy, as evidenced by some of the Silicon Valley firms that rode the dotcom boom. But it’s also a place where there’s a need necessary to tread cautiously to avoid a conflict of interest.
The question of whether Tandem is a law firm or not isn’t merely one of semantics. One of the requirements for compliance with D.C. ethics rules is that ancillary services (like lobbying or strategic advice) must support “provision of legal services” and not the other way around. In other words, if legal services become ancillary to business services, then the combination of lawyers and non-lawyers sharing fees isn’t “working in tandem” at all, but instead, unlawful fee-splitting. In addition, if legal services are ancillary to other dealings, that may also raise questions about whether attorney-client privilege attaches to lawyer communications. Finally, when lawyers become too intertwined with client business, they can lose their independence. Indeed, that’s what happened with Enron (which we often forget that back in the day, was its own shiny, shiny business model du jour).
Tandem is irresistibly cool and smart and there’s much lawyers can learn from it. Above all, this firm knows its niche (companies between $5 and $20 million in revenues and growing) and sings to it, promising client-focused, responsive and business savvy lawyers. What a breath of fresh air from stodgy, disconnected and oblivious big law. Still, the question that remains is will Tandem – and more importantly, the less scrupulous or not-as-clever copycats that are destined to follow in its footsteps – be lawyer enough to say no when that’s what their clients need to hear.