Our vision from the start was not just to bring in a group of lawyers and do legal work like every other law firm. Instead, we had a very determined plan based on growing a culture of highly-talented and highly-trained lawyers who would work as a team (and enjoy working together) in order to provide superb legal service to our clients. So that we all knew what we had to focus on, we put our business goal in writing back near the beginning of the Firm, as follows:
“To be widely regarded as one of the premier law firms in the United States. Our success will be measured not only by our profitability, size, and client base, but also by the depth of our clients’ satisfaction and the loyalty and commitment of our attorneys to our Firm.”
We realized early on that the most important goal for the Firm was to bring in talented lawyers and keep them at the Firm.
Our Mission: To attract, train and retain talented lawyers
To achieve this goal, we needed a foundation for our culture and this foundation was built upon a set of critical values, including:
- Do the right thing even when it hurts
- Deliver outstanding service to our clients
- Insist on plain unvarnished honesty in all matters
- Attack complacency
- Put the Firm first; our success depends on effective teamwork
- Ardent support for our values and purposes
These were not just words on a page to us, but the whole point of the Firm’s existence. For example, when young lawyers join the Firm, they are schooled not just in the law, but in the Firm’s culture, and in what it means to be part of Duval & Stachenfeld.
Learn more about our Values >
We insist that all lawyers follow these principles and, in addition, actively support them.
Although it may sound harsh, this is one of the few places where we have zero tolerance for other views – we believe all of our attorneys should have the same set of values, since the values are what make us truly “D&S” in the first place.
As a result, a large percentage of the lawyers we have hired have stayed with us for the long-term. They grow up here, are trained here, and we believe that very few of them would want to work anywhere else in the legal profession. To this day, turnover, after the initial two years of basic training, is very low -- and we like to keep it very low. The lawyers whom we hire and train develop great knowledge of how to service our clients and build long-term relationships with our clients. This cannot happen if these lawyers quit or are let go. Certainly, our clients would not like it.
Our Hedgehog Principle
In addition to our values, we created our fundamental principle (called our “Hedgehog Principle” after the concept discussed by Jim Collins in his management books). This is the most important theme of the Firm. In brief, it stands for the proposition that we really care about our clients and our lawyers – not just because the lawyers bill hours and the clients pay us money – but because these people and relationships are meaningful to us at a higher level. This Hedgehog Principle (embodied in our logo) is our guiding force and the reason “why” we exist – the reason why we get up in the morning determined to do a great job for our clients. Without a reason “why”, we do not believe there is much point to being in business. Learn more about our Hedgehog Principle >
The Firm transformed itself during the Global Financial Crisis. In 2007, we were a firm of about 35 lawyers, close to 90 percent of which was concentrated in the real estate transactional area. Litigation was strong and thriving, but only a small part of the overall firm. We were not very diversified and in for a very rough ride. Of course, real estate transactional work contracted dramatically for all firms, and our business and our competitors’ businesses suffered as well. This gave rise to difficult decisions.
Our competition responded by engaging in significant and even dramatic layoffs. Many of the major law firms shed numerous associates and even partners. We too were reeling from the downturn, but decided to do the opposite – so, instead, we kept virtually everyone on the team. Although our emotions were rife with fear, our intellects told us that when the Global Financial Crisis ended, almost all real estate transactions would be distressed, and we wanted to have our team in place to be able to service our clients as they rebounded. So, we made a “bet-the-company” decision to keep virtually everyone on board. If you consider who we were, why we started, and how we had grown, no other decision made any sense. How could we let everyone down just because business was bad?
Then, after the worst had passed, we found the market strewn with a great number of outstanding real estate lawyers from major law firms, and we started to acquire those lawyers. We hired lawyers from some of the top real estate practices in New York City who shared our vision and values. These lawyers brought with them not only the highest caliber of legal skills and experience, but also a bevy of additional blue-chip institutional clients. In almost any other firm, such rapid growth could lead to a dilution of a firm’s values, culture and ideals or a condominium with practice silos – but D&S is unlike any other firm. We were able to assimilate these like-minded practitioners into our culture and transition their practices seamlessly. In the end, we grew significantly during the Global Financial Crisis, while our competition contracted their talent pools and client capabilities.
But there is more...
During the worst of the Global Financial Crisis – at the beginning of 2009 –our real estate clients were hurting in a very serious manner. All of them had suffered. Yet at this point many of our competitor law firms raised their billing rates, fairly dramatically, which was a body blow to our client base. We again did the opposite of our competition. In fact, we lowered our billing rates – just a small amount – but our point was made - “We are in the trenches with you, our clients. We care about you.”
At this point, the combination of our reputation for high quality, coupled with our blue chip institutional client base, added to reasonable (even comparatively low) billing rates, caused things to start to go in our favor in a very meaningful manner. In addition to adding lawyers, we added numerous clients and our reputation grew. Until today, when the Global Financial Crisis is hopefully deep in the past, we are one of the largest real estate practices in New York City, and are blessed with an excellent and diverse client base.
Ultimately, it was our Hedgehog Principle that carried us through these difficult times to great success. And it is our Hedgehog Principle that carries us today as it is the heart of the reason why attrition is close to zero -- both among our lawyers and our client relationships.
This is the reason “why” we are in business
With the Global Financial Crisis finally receding behind us, and times being relatively good, we made another bet-the-company decision in 2013. After a great deal of soul-searching, we decided that we did not want to attempt to be all things to all clients and, instead, decided that we would build upon our pre-existing strength and reputation in the real estate world and become the “Pure Play in Real Estate.”
In this goal we focus the entire Firm around a market we wish to do our best to “own”; namely, being the finest real estate law firm in the world. The more we work in this manner, the more we are excited about having obtained a real competitive advantage in which we can add more value to our clients than any other law firm in real estate matters.
As an obvious example – from the point of view of a client contemplating using our Firm for a critical matter – consider a real estate litigation matter (e.g., a partnership dispute between two partners), and consider the value to the client of coupling creative, but practical, litigators who have deep and broad experience in handling all aspects of real estate-related disputes with the leading practitioners in the world of real estate partnerships (who have unparalleled experience in negotiating partnership agreements) available to figure out every possible strategy.
And as another obvious example – from the point of view of a lawyer contemplating joining the Firm – consider the ease with which a lawyer in any real estate-related discipline can bring the Firm’s other services and value propositions in other real estate related disciplines to service that client at the highest level.
The more we put together our different, but real estate-related, practice groups, the more value we are able to add to our clients (in building and protecting their businesses) and to our lawyers (in building their careers).
The ultimate goal is for all of our clients and all of our lawyers to benefit from our Pure Play in Real Estate
In recent years we have experienced dramatic growth. Indeed, the number of lawyers at the Firm increased by close to 50% between 2012 and 2013. Attrition of associates has been quite low and attrition of equity partners for over six years is zero!
Times are quite good for the Firm right now and we are enjoying them; however, we are mindful of the fact that our business – like the business of most companies – goes up and down over time. Instead of fearing the downturns, we are trying to do the exact opposite – and even look forward to these down times as a chance to expand and grow. Our newest motto “Embrace Volatility” is designed to push ourselves – both individually and as a law firm – to live within, and indeed below, our means, so that when times go poorly we are in a position to take advantage of opportunities.