Looking around at their Appellate Practice Subcommittee meetings at the state bar, Ruth Moore and Marie Williams noticed something. Just about every appellate lawyer was either with a large firm or had a solo practice.
They decided to join forces to form something in between.
Appellate boutique Moore Williams officially launched last month, serving clients out of its office in Golden. The firm combines Moore, a Southern California transplant who’s done of-counsel work with Reilly Pozner and Richards Carrington, with Williams, who is a former Faegre Baker Daniels partner.
Handling appeals as a two-woman firm allows them to offer clients something a bit different than if they would apart, or within a big firm’s appellate practice group.
“Part of the genesis of [Moore Williams] is, this was a vacuum, I think, in the Colorado legal market,” Williams said. A small firm can bring multiple minds to a matter on appeal while being more flexible than a large firm in its hourly rates — if it even uses the billable hour in certain cases.
But Moore and Williams didn’t just launch their firm to fill a niche. The idea occurred to them when they realized how similar they were in terms of their work values and even life circumstances.
Williams comes from a BigLaw background, having spent 16 years at Faegre Baker Daniels in Denver. She went to work in its litigation department after graduating from the University of Colorado Law School in 2000. She argued her first appeal as a third-year associate. She took a break after her sixth year at the firm to go clerk for then-Justice Allison Eid at the Colorado Supreme Court, then returned to Faegre where she became a partner in 2008, mostly representing banks and insurance companies.
Williams had a “big period of change” around 2012, when she had her first child and the firm underwent a merger. In 2016 she adopted her second child, “and at that point, it was when I decided that I wasn’t sure that big firm life was for me anymore,” she said. She made a short-lived lateral move to Kutak Rock, where she learned that it wasn’t the big firms so much as big firm practice, in general, that she didn’t want anymore. She soon went solo.
For years, Williams had run into Moore at Colorado Bar Association meetings. A Columbia University School of Law grad, Moore was originally from Southern California where she got her start at O’Melveny & Myers. Like Williams, she started out in litigation and would find herself shifting more and more into the firm’s appellate work.
“I definitely got pegged as ‘the writer’, and I enjoyed that,” Moore said.
Moore eventually came to work in Denver and moved to energy law firm Beatty & Wozniak. A year after having her first child in 2011, she went solo and became of counsel to a friend’s firm in Los Angeles. The arrangement worked out for her because she didn’t have to commute to Denver anymore from her home in Conifer, she earned more, and she could be more involved in her local community, she said. That friend sold his practice, and she later formed an of counsel relationship with Richards Carrington and Reilly Pozner on cases including the Castle Law Group appeal. The firms got a fine against Castle overturned in an April Colorado Court of Appeals decision.
Community involvement was the initial connection between Moore and Williams when they began discussing a team-up in February. Williams was packing up to leave a subcommittee meeting when she mentioned that she had run off to a Girl Scouts function. That sparked conversations with Moore, who also volunteered with Girl Scouts of Colorado, and it eventually clicked: they were both solo appellate attorneys with young children and were active in their community.
Moore and Williams did a “values exercise” listing out what each of them wanted out of legal practice. “We realized we were interested in the same things: We wanted to have a top-notch appellate boutique here in Colorado,” Moore said. “We wanted to have … community engagement and advancing the practice of law as part of our actual firm values.”
In addition to Girl Scouts, Moore is involved in the Rotary Club of Conifer and Destination Imagination, an organization that promotes creative problem solving among schoolchildren. Williams is on the NICU Family Advisory Committee for Children’s Hospital. Volunteer experience, aside from its intrinsic benefits, can make lawyers more effective, they said.
“Having that sort of grounding, I think, makes lawyers have a better, bigger sense of what we’re really doing,” Moore said. “It’s not about winning the narrow legal issue, it’s part of a bigger context. You understand your clients better, you understand the practicalities better. You can have a more full and healthy understanding of the law and the facts if you are grounded in the real world.”
“It’s very easy these days for lawyers to become kind of divorced from their communities,” in the “ivory tower” of a BigLaw firm, Williams said. An appellate lawyer at the highest level, given the more academic nature of the practice, can sometimes become “very isolated from not just sort of life outside the law, but sometimes other practice areas,” she said. “And that is rarely what serves a client best, I think.”
Moore and Williams said the community-centric theme of their practice also carries over to their pricing in some ways. They consider arrangements that include flexible hourly billing that accounts for the size of the case and the client’s size, among other factors.
“We’re looking at more of a market-value approach to cases,” Williams said. “We recognize that you’re not going to pay $600 an hour for your breach of contract case that’s worth $20,000.”
They’re also considering offering flat-fee arrangements, which Williams said might be viable for certain appeals cases seeing that they’re typically more predictable than most litigation. Another possible option is taking a lower flat fee up front with a “success premium” if the firm wins the appeal.
Another advantage of teaming up rather than going solo, Moore and Williams said, is it allows them more flexibility to take on pro bono work; the billed work of one partner can help support the non-billed work of the other at a given time.
Moore and Williams hope the appellate boutique model proves successful not just for their own sake, but to encourage a couple other like-minded attorneys to join.
“I hope that our firm is not just the two of us,” Williams said. “I hope that over time we convince some of those other really great appellate lawyers that maybe this does make sense. And we don’t want to be a huge firm, but five brains are better than one, even more than two brains are better than one.”
— Doug Chartier