Law360 (November 10, 2020, 12:43 PM EST) -- Sher Tremonte partners and co-founders Justin M. Sher and Michael Tremonte began the litigation boutique in 2011 with just two other staffers. Now the firm has 28 employees and a reputation for commercial litigation, white collar and criminal defense work — and has hired seven people this year despite challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
This interview was recorded on Oct. 30 and has been edited for length and clarity.
The legal field was transforming even before the coronavirus pandemic upended the business of law and every other industry this year. How has the firm adapted?
Tremonte: Our firm in some ways exists because of changes in the legal industry. We started about 10 years ago when the country was just coming out of the financial crisis and boutiques were just starting to become a little more common, in part as a result of two forces. The startup costs have come down dramatically because of changes in technology. On the demand side, coming out of the crisis, clients were looking for very, very accomplished lawyers but there was pressure to do it efficiently, to deliver high-end legal services efficiently and economically.
Sher: It was our investment in technology early on that allowed us to meet the demands of clients so we could be flexible — offer alternative billing arrangements, for example.
Tremonte: Boutiques have also become attractive alternatives to highly talented younger lawyers particularly coming out of clerkships or out of starting their careers at larger firms or in government service. Very, very talented, highly credentialed, highly motivated younger lawyers now think of boutiques as a viable alternative to the BigLaw pathway.
In what ways has a smaller setup made things easier during the pandemic?
Sher: Investing in technology early on meant that our transition to this world where everyone is working remotely was seamless.
Tremonte: It's also a testament to the culture that we have developed at the firm. The firm is a lot less about place and a lot more about our shared understanding about what it means to practice law together.
Despite the pandemic, the firm has expanded this year. How has Sher Tremonte been able to grow when so many other businesses are struggling?
Sher: A lot of people are going through hard times during the pandemic. Unfortunately, that can sometimes result in more business disputes, so we're in a position to meet our clients' needs when that happens with alternative billing arrangements and a flexible business structure. That's part of the reason for our continued growth. It's partially coincidence and partly a result of more activity that sometimes follows an economic downturn.
Tremonte: It's always been in our DNA to take certain kinds of risks. The kind of risk we're happiest to take is when we meet someone who we think would be a very good fit with our team, we try to make it work. We also did that when we were much newer and much smaller.
Is there a point where the firm would be as large as you'd want to grow, to maintain that close-knit culture?
Sher: We haven't settled on a particular number. We're happy to continue growing, attracting great talent, and serving the needs of more clients as long as we can continue to preserve our culture and service.
Tremonte: It's something we keep close tabs on. We're very careful of the culture of the firm.
What are some challenges you've encountered while onboarding and integrating new hires when the firm is working remotely?
Sher: That's a real issue. Normally someone comes to the firm and they can be in their office and they can walk down the hall to get to know people, go out to lunch. We try to be creative about how we do it now. We have a combination of serious meetings and more fun meetings so a lot of people can let their guard down. Icebreakers have helped. The other day we had a video conference where people were encouraged to put on their Halloween consumes and, surprisingly, most people did.
Tremonte: It's actually been one of the silver linings to the COVID situation. We're all at home and interacting by video conference and in some ways I know now more about my colleagues' families than I did before. We've also done some very limited in person socializing, sometimes at peoples' homes, small groups, socially distanced cocktails or coffees. Sometimes we get together in the parks. Even if it's limited, maintaining some kind of regular diet of in-person meetings has been helpful.
Has the pandemic impacted the nature of white collar and criminal defense work? Why or why not?
Tremonte: It has dramatically impacted white collar criminal defense work. The courthouses have been operating at a very limited capacity, so that means the timetable for investigations that are in the works and the timetable for trials and indicted cases have been pushed out, in some cases indefinitely without dates, or well into 2021 and 2022. There's also been a slowdown in the number of new investigations because logistical limitations have made it harder for the federal government to get investigations off the ground. In the internal investigations, the main difference is that everything has to happen remotely. This is all challenging because so much of our work turns on face to face interactions. The most challenging thing is to relearn how you evaluate a witness' credibility when you're not in the same room. You're developing new instincts and new cognitive tools for evaluating the credibility of witnesses.
Aside from coronavirus, what issues do boutique firms face within the current legal market?
Tremonte: In the current environment there are many more opportunities than challenges for boutique law firms. Technology plays a very important role. It used to be that you needed very large groups of people to deal with document review in discovery for instance. Now, because of machine learning and very sophisticated algorithms which have been approved by the federal and the state courts, we can very effectively and very efficiently handle much larger litigation than boutique firms in years past could.
How do you envision the firm changing in the next few years? What are your goals?
Sher: We expect to continue to grow organically the longer we're around. We're going to continue to find ourselves in larger matters. Our challenge is going to be allowing our junior lawyers to get really quick experience and grow while keeping our team small. We're going to have to pay close attention to make sure that the experience is distributed to all our associates.
Tremonte: You're going to see, certainly in our shop and maybe across the profession, more flexibility when it comes to working remotely. We've found people can be extraordinarily productive and very well integrated even when they're working remotely. It's going to help people strike a better balance between work and their family lives.
If you could have lunch with any well-known lawyer, alive or dead, who would it be? Why?
Tremonte: I've always been fascinated by the lawyers who are the architects of these sustained legal campaigns that really transform the law and benefit a society broadly. The two that leap to mind for me as these extraordinary legal litigation architects would have to be Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They're both gone but I think that would be a really interesting conversation.
Sher: I can't beat that answer.
--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.
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