Leaving BigLaw Behind: Law360 Interviews Capital Appellate Advocacy’s Larry Ebner

December 13, 2016

BigLaw Alums Q&A: Capital Appellate’s Larry Ebner


Law360, New York (December 13, 2016, 3:59 PM EST) —

Lawrence S. Ebner is the founding member of Washington, D.C.-based appellate litigation boutique, Capital Appellate Advocacy PLLC, where he focuses on federal issues at the Supreme Court and in federal courts of appeals throughout the United States. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers and an accomplished appellate litigator who represents businesses and industries in high-stakes appeals. Following graduation from Harvard Law School in 1972, and two years as an honors program attorney in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Division, Ebner joined a home-grown Washington, D.C., law firm whose 25 attorneys practiced in the government contracts and environmental law areas.

Ebner remained at that law firm and its successors (most recently McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP) for the next 42 years, where he handled litigation involving federally regulated or procured products or services, and developed a specialization in appellate advocacy. After Ebner’s firm merged into Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, Ebner decided to leave BigLaw and open Capital Appellate Advocacy PLLC. Ebner is active in DRI-The Voice of the Defense Bar, where he chairs the Amicus Committee.

Q: Why did you decide to leave BigLaw? Was there a specific moment or incident that significantly influenced your decision?

A: I departed BigLaw because I wanted to open my own appellate litigation boutique where I can focus more on the practice of law than the business of law. Now I have more flexibility to decide how best to serve my clients, including with regard to accepting new matters and fee arrangements. I also can serve the legal profession by devoting more nonbillable time to professional writing, and to organizations such as DRI-The Voice of the Defense Bar, where I chair the committee that screens requests for DRI amicus support in U.S. Supreme Court cases.

When I graduated law school, I was excited to join the legal profession. Four decades later, I somehow had become part of the BigLaw “industry.” Through mergers and acquisitions, the small Washington, D.C., law firm where I began my private practice career had morphed into the world’s largest, with thousands of professionals in well over one hundred offices around the globe. I came to realize that my BigLaw firm’s focus on expanding its global presence and cultivating cross-border legal business was not particularly relevant to my U.S.-based appellate litigation practice. That became clear to me when I attended last winter’s global partners meeting and listened to other regions’ presentations about their areas of practice.

BigLaw firms like the one that I chose to leave have many excellent qualities, including sophisticated management and outstanding attorneys who serve their clients well. But I found that BigLaw economics — the business of law — sometimes burdens individual partners’ professional pursuits. For example, BigLaw partners often have to persuade financial managers that there is a business-related justification for particular client discounts or alternate fee arrangements, or for significant time devoted to nonbillable professional activities. That ties into BigLaw’s continual scrutiny of individual partners’ financial performance “metrics” and “analytics.” I elected to leave that behind and make my own professional decisions.

Q: What was the transition process like, and how long did it take? Were there any surprises along the way?

A: The transition has been surprisingly easy. The key was advance planning, which I began about three months before my actual departure last August 31. I was open for business in my new office the next day.

I was determined to do it right. So after devising a law firm name, Capital Appellate Advocacy, and going through the simple online process of forming a PLLC, I engaged a well-known brand strategy and design firm, Greenfield Belser,  which works with law firms of all sizes. They teamed with me to develop an appellate practice-themed firm logo, a creative website (capitalappellate.com) that conveys key information about my experience, skills, and services and provides links to my publications and blogs, and an attractive “Big Law to Boutique Law” announcement card which I mailed to about 350 contacts.

To ease the transition, I decided to rent an office in the area of downtown Washington, D.C., where I have spent virtually my entire career. My new office, which contains my own long-time office furniture and artwork, is part of a Carr Workplaces shared office suite that provides attractive conference rooms, cordial receptionists, and information technology and other support services. I also subscribed to Clio, cloud-based law practice management software that tracks matters and time and syncs with Quickbooks.

I notified my former firm by email about three weeks prior to my departure. Although I wrote that withdrawal notice while in Washington, D.C., I decided to wait until I was on vacation in Hawaii — the most tranquil, far-off place I know — to press the Send button. That was my personal version of “one small step” equals “one giant leap”!

Q: How did your clients react to your decision to depart BigLaw? Did your relationship with them change?

A: Each of my long-time clients stayed with me. I was tempted to let them know about my plans as soon as I decided to depart BigLaw and open my own firm. But because I was still a partner at my former firm, I waited until after I gave notice. My former firm was very cooperative, including about transferring client files, so there was no gap in service to clients.

It would be an understatement to say that my clients have been enthusiastic about the launching of my own law office. For example, one individual, who has worked with me for nearly 30 years, sent me a very thoughtful and heartfelt hand-written note about how much our professional and personal relationship means to him. Opening my own firm has convinced me that loyalty still exists and makes a difference.

At Capital Appellate Advocacy, clients get the same experienced BigLaw attorney that they otherwise would have engaged, but now at his own boutique firm. I think that clients are happy to know that I continue to be readily accessible to them, including in person at a very professional-looking office suite near the White House.

Q: What do you miss most about working in BigLaw?

A: I mainly miss day-to-day, in-person interaction with my favorite long-time colleagues, who were very kind to organize a farewell luncheon for me. That includes my former legal secretary, who worked with me for more than 40 years. The good news is that my new office is only a short walk away. Many former colleagues have visited me, and we stay in touch. On the more mundane side, I miss certain benefits and services that I used to take for granted, ranging from group health insurance to online subscriptions to office supplies.

Working as a solo practitioner, however, is not as lonely as that term might imply. In fact, there are a surprising number of lawyers who work at the suite where my office is located. They include in-house counsel for companies and professional societies, lobbyists, members of small law firms, and solo practitioners. There are many informal networking opportunities. In addition, by actively participating in groups like the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers and DRI, I regularly communicate with a nationwide network of appellate specialists. Many of us appellate lawyers enjoy closing the office door and writing our own briefs on a computer screen, so doing that at my own firm is not much different than what I did at BigLaw.

Q: What advice do you have for other practitioners who are considering departing larger firms for solo or small firms?

A: For me, leaving BigLaw has been a professionally and personally liberating experience. Transitioning to a solo practice or small firm probably is easier for highly experienced attorneys than for more junior lawyers, who still need to develop professional skills, reputations and contacts. My advice for attorneys who decide to make the leap is to be fully committed to continuing your practice. Invest in office space (outside your home) and a well-designed website that conveys your experience, services and insights. There is an abundance on online and other resources, some provided by your bar association, to help you start and operate a solo or small firm practice.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.