“So I hear you and your husband want to be business partners… WHY??!”
It was the spring of 2011. Ken and I were still newlyweds and we were preparing to merge our law practices. And we heard the above question. A lot. Many of our friends felt that working with a spouse would be “too much time together,” or that business decision-making might create too much discord within a marriage.
But to Ken and me, becoming business partners made perfect sense. At the time, we were direct competitors, each specializing in the field of Social Security Disability and working out of different offices. I was a partner in a small but busy firm, and Ken was a solo practitioner just nine blocks away. Although we were under separate roofs, we spent our work days constantly connected by email or text, discussing our cases, sharing legal research and debating strategy ideas. Thank goodness for unlimited data plans.
By bringing our practices together, Ken and I looked forward to sharing our passion for representing the disabled, combining overhead expenses, and carpooling our work commute, all the while building and growing a business to support our family. So when the opportunity arose to join forces with our longtime friend and colleague Jim Cutter, we jumped at it.
And so, in July 2011, Cutter Hall Karlock was formed, and we moved into our new shared downtown office space. And it’s been pretty great, for the most part. But not unlike marriage, being law partners with a spouse comes with its own share of challenges. Over the last two years, we have developed a few key solutions to help us keep our business and marital relationships strong.
Capitalize on strengths and work as a team.
Ken and I come from very different beginnings in the field of Social Security Disability. After passing the bar in 1993, but not sure that he wanted to practice law after all, Ken accepted a position as a claims adjudicator at the Ohio Bureau of Disability Determination, the agency responsible for making medical decisions on Social Security disability claims. After four years at BDD, Ken left to enter the world of private practice, applying his behind-the-scenes regulatory knowledge as he methodically taught himself the role of advocate.
At about the same time that Ken left BDD, I graduated from law school and took a job working for a busy multi-state Social Security Disability firm, where my training can be best described as being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool without a floatie. I began meeting with potential clients while studying for the bar, and within weeks of being sworn into practice had already begun making appearances in hearings and authoring District Court briefs.
The result of our diverse backgrounds is that Ken and I have each developed unique strengths in representing disabled claimants. In our practice, we find it helpful to capitalize on those strengths when working together on cases. I have a good ability to help new clients feel at ease with the disability process, and I also function well in fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants situations, including keeping a calm head when putting out office fires. On the other hand, I lean heavily on Ken for his rote knowledge of vocational and regulatory issues and legal strategy. He’s kind of a savant.
By recognizing each other’s strengths and working as a team, we can provide a more effective advocacy for our clients and make our own work experience happier.
Find a way to leave the office at the office.
This has always been our greatest challenge. I often joke with clients that Ken and I “eat, sleep, and breathe disability law,” and there’s actually quite a bit of truth to that.
But without a good quality of life, building a successful business means nothing. And so just as we schedule business appointments, we also make a point to schedule personal time when business talk is designated a no-no.
Sometimes this is easier said than done, but “no work zones” for our time together is imperative. So at least a night or two a week we agree that business talk is off limits as soon as we step out of the office. There will be plenty of time to talk work at another time, but we can’t forget that our marriage is always Number One.
Learn to laugh.
Two weeks ago I was meeting with my client to discuss a particular action in his case that involved a very small amount of risk. I presented him with a detailed explanation of the current status of his case and my recommendation for how to move forward. My advice was cogent, well-reasoned, and came with numerous hand-drawn diagrams on a yellow legal pad.
At the conclusion of my presentation my client asked, “But what does your husband think I should do?”
And besides asking Ken to join us in the conference room, what else could I do? I allowed myself to laugh.
And by the way, in case you were wondering, we still text and email about work issues all day long. But now we do it from adjoining offices.