Andrews ∙ Lagasse ∙ Branch & Bell LLP finds that healthy balance and happy attorneys equate to victory for clients.
“When I walk into work, I immediately get a big smile on my face,” says Margi Bell, Partner with Andrews ∙ Lagasse ∙ Branch & Bell, a San Diego based law firm specializing in employment law, professional liability with an emphasis on design professionals, construction, toxic tort, business and general liability litigation. The smile is justified for Bell and her partners, Jonathan Andrews, Jennifer Branch, and Traci Lagasse, as the four partners made it a point to ensure that, when they started their own firm in 2007, the environment in which they worked would allow for balance.
Andrews, Lagasse, Branch and Bell were formerly partners at a large San Diego firm, when the idea to start their own firm began to take shape. They all shared the similar desire to “roll up our sleeves and practice law,” says Bell. While she is quick to characterize her time at the large national firm as invaluable in terms of experience she and her partners were looking for a way to utilize their big firm experience to provide a more personal, boutique style experience for clients.
Lagasse seconds Bell’s sentiments, saying, “The four of us have the same fundamental principles. It’s really what makes our firm so unique.” As the only partner in the firm who does not practice employment law, Lagasse, who specializes in professional liability defense, values the diversity in the firm, but also the common values that all partners share. “The pride I feel when I get to sell my partners’ expertise through cross-marketing is indescribable. I think the world of them. If I had to go back and do it all over a thousand times, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I would choose these guys every time.”
Birth of a Forward Thinking Firm
“Starting our own firm allowed us to create a working environment consistent with our personal and professional expectations. Specifically, it allowed us to be more creative and collaborative in serving clients while allowing us to maintain perspective concerning community and family,” Andrews says. Indeed, from the get-go, Andrews ∙ Lagasse ∙ Branch & Bell would be vastly different from their former firm, beginning with its composition, as a 100% female and minority owned firm. That fact alone would serve as an asset, as public and private institutions have expressed an increasing desire to work with firms that reflect the diversity of their workforce. “There aren’t a lot of us out there,” Branch says of being a member of the California Minority Counsel Program, and a member of the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms.
“The biggest hurdle was the unknown. Law firms are filled with risk-averse people as we all were. Once we overcame that fear and trusted in ourselves and each other, the process quickly revealed itself as rewarding. Also, as a small firm, we had to battle the stereotype of resources and bandwidth. Fortunately, we were able to quickly establish that our resources and capabilities were on par, if not greater than larger firms – and we could make them available to clients for a fraction of the cost,” Andrews continues. Moreover, the new firm fundamentally believed that happy attorneys made for good attorneys, so they set about to cultivate a practice that emphasized the passion the partners feel for practicing law.
“We really like what we do. Our passion for our practice carries through to deliver the results that our clients are counting on,” Bells adds. Indeed, the practice’s clients, which include public and privately held companies of all sizes, public institutions, insurance companies, nonprofit organizations such as educational institutions, community outreach organizations and health care facilities, as well as restaurants, architects, engineers and other design professionals, real estate professionals, resorts, property owners and management companies, developers, contractors, manufacturers, biotech companies, utilities, financial institutions and law firms, continue to reap the rewards of having a team of lawyers who are admittedly “type-A’s, highly competitive, and “hungry to work really hard,” Lagasse says.
Rewards Born From Results
Andrews ∙ Lagasse ∙ Branch & Bell’s unique structure “enables us to provide the responsive, hands-on legal services available at smaller firms, while providing the resources and expertise available at larger firms, thereby most effectively serving the needs of our valued clients,” says Andrews. The clients certainly appreciate the results of this structure, “which has brought recognition to both the partners and the firm as a whole.”
All four of the founding partners have been voted San Diego Super Lawyers® in 2009, 2010 and 2011. As only the top 5% of San Diego attorneys in their designated areas of practice can claim this recognition, it’s certainly impressive that all founding members are included. Andrews, Branch and Bell were recognized in the area of Employment and Labor Law, while Traci Lagasse earned her recognition in the area of Professional Liability Defense.
Moreover, the San Diego Daily Transcript has also recognized all four founding partners as San Diego’s peer-selected best and brightest attorneys in their respective practice areas. In 2010, Lagasse, Branch and Bell were also honored with the 2010 “Women Who Mean Business” Executive Team Award. Although many individuals are recognized, only one group is selected for this prestigious team award. Not to be overlooked, in his role as the only male partner, Jonathan Andrews has been the recipient of the award of “40 under 40” from the San Diego Metropolitan Magazine. This award made him one of only 40 of San Diego’s brightest young business professionals, entrepreneurs and civic leaders, all of whom are under 40 years of age.
Nurturing a New Generation
Coming from a big firm, all founding partners of Andrews ∙ Lagasse ∙ Branch & Bell know just how hard associate attorneys have to work. As part of their commitment to foster an environment where hard work and creativity are rewarded, they don’t just talk the talk; they walk the walk. “We provide a number of incentives and support mechanisms to encourage professional growth. We want our employees to feel that they have a career rather than just a job. Associate attorneys receive spot bonuses when their work product or effort exceeds the firm’s expectations. These bonuses have consisted of get-away weekends, spa days, restaurant gift cards, shopping sprees and cash,” Branch explains. “We’ve all been associates, so we want their experience to be fun, and enlightening,” she adds.
The founding partners also support their associates in their own personal proactive endeavors. “We encourage them to develop their own strengths,” Bell says. This extends to charitable work outside of the office, and for their part, the firms founders tend to lead by example. Jonathan Andrews, for example, has volunteered for the Legal Aid Society of San Diego’s Peer Mediation Program. In this capacity, he has handled and/or supervised litigation and transactional matters on behalf of Legal Aid clients. He is also on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of San Diego County.
Jennifer Branch volunteers as a judge for the San Diego Teen Court Program, a diversion program that works in association with the Juvenile Court, where first-time juvenile offenders accept responsibility for a crime they have committed and agree to have a binding sentence imposed by a jury of their peers.
All four of the firm’s founding partners participate in the San Diego County Bar Association, supporting the work done by the Association’s diversity initiatives, community service campaigns and continuing education programs.
“We believe that our approach to attorney development has helped us grow. The firm is committed to assisting its attorneys to grow professionally in any manner they want. This leads to motivated and happier attorneys, and provides the firm with a broad knowledge base,” says Branch. Certainly, this approach is working for the firm, as it has grown from 5 attorneys to 14 attorneys in less than 5 years.
Fostering Balance into the Future
The extent to which Andrews Lagasse Branch & Bell foster personal growth, through encouraging balance for their entire legal team extends to practical firm policies as well. “We consider ourselves to be on the cutting edge of technology and have always made technology a priority. Everyone in the firm has VoIP, direct fax lines, full remote access, dual monitors, laptops and iPhones,” Lagasse explains. These benefits -which result in a primarily paperless practice – certainly give all of the attorneys the ability to work outside of normal hours, or in between juggling their active family lives.
The commitment to balancing work, fun and family remains a priority for the founding partners, as all partners have children. “We all spend most of our free time entirely with our families and are heavily involved with our kids’ many sports and extracurricular activities,” Bell says.
Make no mistake; the attorneys at Andrews ∙ Lagasse ∙ Branch & Bell are very busy people. But, through it all, they manage to keep their work with their clients very personal, right down to their marketing efforts. “One of the most effective marketing tools we possess is meeting with prospective clients face-to-face. Rather than invest in impersonal and cache marketing efforts, we spend the bulk of our marketing efforts meeting people and discussing their situations. We find that this method is the best way to establish a connection with the client,” Lagasse adds.
This personal approach has certainly worked to the benefit of Andrews ∙ Lagasse ∙ Branch & Bell, who work as a team with clients. Specifically, when it comes to the firms’ national clients, “we all go together,” Bell says. “We travel together and we work together. We are not competing against each other. Some of the largest institutions in San Diego are our clients, and we are all very hands-on when it comes to working with them.”
Andrews ∙ Lagasse ∙ Branch & Bell has clearly found a formula for success. In fact, the firm itself was selected as one of San Diego’s “Best Places to Work” in the 2011 small business category by the San Diego Business Journal. However, the drive to create such a harmonious work/life balance for the attorneys stems directly from the founding partners’ absolute commitment to providing quality service. “We pride ourselves on providing quality and result-oriented representation. The philosophy of our practice is centered on developing and maintaining these professional and personal relationships,” Branch says.
So far, this philosophy seems to be working magnificently. In the last year alone, the firm counted two defense verdicts, a nonsuit, several appellate wins and more than ten successful motions for summary judgment. It is not surprising then, that the firm plans to continue to employ its proven work/life balance strategies for success. “We see ourselves growing strategically over the next five years to emphasize our strong presence in Southern California, and a growing presence throughout central and northern California and Washington,” Andrews says.
It certainly seems like this growth strategy is sure to result in win-win situation for the firm, its future associates, and, most importantly, its clients.
Andrews Lagasse Branch & Bell, LLP
4365 Executive Drive, Suite 950
Filed Under: Featured Stories
About the Author: Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal