One Foot in the Future

Why Edelson PC takes its cues from tech startups

Published in 2017 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2017

When Jay Edelson was toying with the idea of opening his own firm, he kept thinking back on his early days in practice, working for large defense firms. “They were difficult places for attorneys to progress and enjoy practicing law,” Edelson says. “I thought a lot about why that was so. You have a lot of really smart, energetic kids coming in, and they’d have the life kicked out of them within 18 months. I just thought, ‘How depressing is that?’” 

Then came the epiphany.

“At that time, I was suing tech companies,” Edelson says. “I was noticing that their business models were a lot better, and they were focused on long-term incentives instead of short-term profits. You saw a lot of tech companies didn’t care about making money in the first couple of years—they just wanted to set things up for down the road. That’s the opposite of law firms, who want to capture as much billable as possible for that week, that month, that year. The other thing that was special with tech is that when it’s working correctly, everyone’s incentives are aligned.”

So Edelson PC opened its doors in 2007 to focus on plaintiffs’ technology and privacy cases, using ideas set forth by tech startups for hiring and building the culture of the firm. Billable hours were one of the first things to go, to much applause.

“I was a litigator, and realized that when I won a case quickly, it cost the firm a ton of money,” Edelson says. “I’d have pushback from partners saying, ‘You did a great job; you got rid of this big case after a few months; but we just lost a few million in billable over the next few years.’ There’s pressure to make decisions not to win or do the best job, but to keep the case going.”

In Edelson’s experience, here’s how firms typically operate.

“You’re assigned a case, and if it involves a ton of discovery and that’s boring to you, you have to suck it up,” he says. “That’s 90 percent of your life as a young associate. Our view is, if you’re really excited about a case, you should be working on it. We don’t want to force anyone to work any case or aspect they don’t want to. We pass on cases. If nobody is passionate about it, we shouldn’t be bringing it.” 

Edelson also empowers new employees to make decisions on their own—even if they’re wrong. “That means we have to be comfortable with them making decisions we don’t necessarily agree with,” he says. “We want you standing up for yourself, saying this is how we should be litigating the case; we argue it out. If we can defer to you, we will. By allowing people to have ownership, they grow much more quickly. You have got to get up and swing or you’re not going to get better.”

The startup culture pervades the office atmosphere, too. “People are in flip-flops, going around on hoverboards,” Edelson says. “We’re all kind of kids and need to blow off steam.”

The model has been a major success, Edelson says, but other firms seem to be slow to follow suit.

“I think they look at us like aliens and I think they’re right,” he says. “Most of the stuff works for us, but wouldn’t work for a big firm. We have luxuries they don’t have: the fact that we can pick our cases, that we do contingent work and we’re not tied to hourly billing. But I also think you’re going to see more and more of a shift away from what’s been done in the past.”

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