SorinRand, a law firm on Tower Center Boulevard in East Brunswick, is now an office of McCarter & English. The deal between the state’s oldest law firm and the upstart tech company-loving SorinRand was to be finalized on Wednesday, October 1. But there is more to the story than just another legal merger: In its rise from a three-man operation to the 17-lawyer office that it is today, SorinRand invented an entirely new kind of law firm.
In 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, lawyer David Sorin had an idea for a new way to run a corporate law office. Sorin had done well in the traditional world of large law groups. As a former managing partner of Buchanan Ingersoll PC and head of the Princeton office of Hale & Dorr LLP, Sorin had billed clients almost $850 an hour for his services. Out of that money came the hefty administration costs of running the practice: The acres of files, the army of assistants, and the pricey office space. The company made the most money when it pushed as much work as possible down to the most junior partners who were paid the least.
As a top corporate lawyer, Sorin had clients that were all big companies with big legal budgets. In the terminology of the business, they were “not sensitive to price” — that is, they wanted the best legal team, and they didn’t care how much it cost. But Sorin realized there was another group of businesses that were price sensitive and needed legal advice just the same — and preferably that of an experienced lawyer rather than a junior partner: startups, middle-market, and entrepreneurial enterprises needed to hire top legal talent for their transactions.
Sorin and a group of other partners in very large law firms saw an opportunity to create a new kind of law firm that could effectively serve the tech companies that couldn’t hire the big guys. “The challenge, of course, was how to do this at a billing rate structure that made sense for them,” Sorin says.
Sorin, a former CPA, and another partner sat down and figured out the costs of running a traditional law firm, and how to reduce them. A quick look at the numbers showed that infrastructure was eating up a large part of the costs. By cutting infrastructure, Sorin’s new firm could bill less but still offer competitive pay to lawyers.
“We could compete for people with other law firms, but your billing rates would be far less than the billing rates of other firms,” he says. SorinRand’s billing rates are less than $400 an hour and will continue to be so after the merger.
Sorin says his company reduced costs on several fronts. Firstly, it skimped on real estate. “Our ‘Princeton’ office is in East Brunswick, which had significantly lower cost per square foot,” he says. “Our New York office is in an older building. Our Philly office was in Radnor.” He was able to get away with this because his tech company clientele liked to visit in person less frequently than traditional clients, he says.
Sorin also has less conference room space than the typical law firm but makes sure there is always one available when clients come. Crucially, Sorin eliminated the large legal library that most large law offices have, saving even more square footage, and instead bought access to online resources.
Another item on the chopping block was filing. “Most law firms have significant space tied up in their filing. We looked at that and said, ‘why should we spend really large amounts of money utilizing office space for so much paper when it could be stored more efficiently, less costly, and more accessibly, in the cloud?’” Sorin says. “We tried to become as paperless as possible, though you always have to keep some documents on hand.”
The result of all this cutting was that Sorin has about half the office space per lawyer of other firms, though the actual offices and conference rooms are the same size. Sorin says his firm also employed far fewer non-attorneys than other lawyers. Without files to manage, legal secretaries and filing clerks were less needed. Sorin also had no marketing department, leaving publishing and public speaking to the lawyers themselves.
Lastly, Sorin outsourced its IT work. “All of that made us more profitable per dollar of revenue,” Sorin says. “We could achieve excellent profitability on lower revenue per lawyer because of the way we did business.”
Sorin grew up in Brooklyn, where his mother was a secretary and his father was a civil servant clerical worker. “It won’t surprise you that education was very much stressed in my household,” Sorin says. “It was a way to give back to the community and provide a level of financial security that my parents never had.” Sorin went to NYU, graduating at age 19 and going to work for an accounting firm. Four years later, he got a law degree from Fordham, where he was an editor at the school’s law review journal.
In his early years working as a summer associate at the Wall Street firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, Sorin discovered that he really liked representing tech companies and did not enjoy working with big institutional clients. After joining Buchanan Ingersoll, Sorin amassed a clientele of East Coast tech companies and venture capitalists.
“It was there that I began to see some of the issues that we’ve been talking about,” he says. “Billing rates were getting higher and higher. I concluded that this was not what my client base needed.”
SorinRand’s client base included Phone.com, Strayboots, Wayside Tech, United Biosource Corporation (before it was acquired by Merck), Signum Biosciences, and Citron Pharma.
Sorin says he accepted McCarter English’s merger offer after rejecting a number of other firms for essentially representing the old way of doing business. He says McCarter English understood his fee structure and delivery model and offered the depth of a large company without sacrificing the characteristics that made SorinRand unique.
Sorin hopes that in the future, his office, as a branch of McCarter English, will be able to expand beyond the tech sector. “When we started this, we did believe that there was something about technology and tech-enabled companies that made our solution particularly persuasive, and the interesting thing is that as we’ve grown and evolved and looked at the marketplace, those kinds of needs in terms of delivery model really are not unique to tech companies.”
McCarter & English, Two Tower Center Boulevard, 24th Floor, East Brunswick 08816; 732-839-0400; fax, 732-393-1901. David Sorin, managing partner. www.sorinrand.com.