For over 25 years, Peter Berger and his wife, Jane Linowitz, have run the patent/IP firm Levisohn Berger LLP. Learn the secrets to their success. A must read for anyone thinking about starting a law firm with their spouse.
Ever wonder what it would be like to practice law alongside your spouse? In Law Firm Suites’ NYC shared office space, we know of at least four couples who are doing just that.
From an outside perspective, Peter and Jane seem to have found success both in business and in life. They are a pleasure to be around, and are role models for any couple thinking about becoming law partners with their life partner.
This month in the Community Counsel Blog, we’ve been focusing on the role that family plays in our professional lives. But sometimes, as is the case with Peter and Jane, your family life and your professional life becomes one in the same.
So we interviewed Peter to find out:
What’s the secret to working with your sweetie?!?
How did you start your practice?
I started my career at the US Patent Office as an examiner and then worked at Bell Laboratories as a patent attorney. After a brief stint at a small firm, I started my own patent practice. At first, I wrote patent applications on a “wholesale” basis for other patent attorneys. Then, one of my initial clients got into a lawsuit. Before I knew it, I was making money without having a boss. That’s how it began.
When did Jane, your wife, join the practice?
Jane joined the practice in 1987.
Was it always the plan for Jane to join your practice?
There was absolutely no intention for her to work with me; we were afraid that working together would be difficult on our marriage. But, it just kind of happened. Jane enjoyed studying IP during law school and really had a knack for trademarks. I knew her value and how smart she was. I knew she could add value to any firm. Why not mine? It’s been a little over 25 years now.
Your marriage and your practice seem to be thriving. Were these fears unfounded (in terms of how your marriage may be negatively affected by working together)?
Of a fashion. For the first several years the partnership severely tested our relationship. Over time we learned what worked for us. As it turns out, the best solution was not working on the same projects.
We learned that we approach and solve problems very differently, which created conflict when we collaborated on projects. But by focusing on separate projects, it has made working in the same office more successful.
So, although you are part of the same firm, it seems that you and Jane work independently.
Yes. Jane does trademarks. I do patents. While we see each other throughout the day, it’s like we have our own practices.
We could not practice together on the same cases. It just wouldn’t work. We are very different. I am by nature extremely independent. It is part of the reason I have been self-employed for so long.
I come into the office and close my door. Jane has an office a few doors down. It is inevitable that we will see each other, but our practice areas are so different. Jane does her work. I do mine.
Do you feel that having your wife in the practice makes it stronger? Are there financial advantages to working together?
I think that it works really well for our practice. Generally, our clients are small to medium sized businesses that, in many cases, are family owned. The clients that know we are husband and wife appreciate it. It is relatable. We do not advertise our firm as a “family firm”, but I think that our ideal client feels more comfortable when they find out that our family is the firm.
One time we got invited us to a fundraiser. When we got to the host’s house, I showed up with Jane. He said, “I thought you had something going on with the sweetie in the office and your boring wife stayed at home.” To which Jane immediately replied: “Gee. I am glad you think there is something going on.”
How do the financials work? Do you both collect a salary? Was there ever an issue with that? I would imagine it is uncomfortable hiring your wife and then offering her a low salary.
We started to regularly take a draw around the time Jane came into the practice. Before that it was haphazard. We pay ourselves different amounts, but the benefit of working with your wife is that the money always ends up in the same place. Regardless of the amounts we pay to ourselves individually, financially, Jane is the real winner. She always seems to have more money than me.
Would you advise married attorneys to follow your path and work with their spouse?
Honestly, I can’t say. It works for us, now. But, it took us several years to understand that business is business. In the beginning, both Jane and I blurred the boundaries between home and work. We brought any problem we had into the office and brought our work back to our home. There was no separation. I do not advise this. It creates problems and really tests a marriage.
At times we would fight over every two cents that was unaccounted for. Small potatoes. This is not how you run a business.
The way you run a successful law practice is much different from the way you run a household.
But, the reason we’ve been able to get past this is that Jane and I share a common interest – that of our family. That’s a lot different from having a traditional business partner, whose core motivation is his or her own personal interest. I think that’s been the secret to our firm’s success.
There is a safety and comfort in knowing that every decision your partner makes is for your mutual best interest. My chief advisor and supporter is on my side, both personally and professionally.
Peter’s advice to couples considering a business partnership in the law.
- You better have a really thick skin. You cannot work together if you are going to take every offhand business comment personally. The nature of a workplace lends itself to insignificant and often misplaced frustrations. If you cannot get past little, snide comments, you will never last – either in marriage or in business.
- It may be best if you and your spouse have different specialties. Our practice works because Jane focuses on trademarks and I focus on patents. We are rarely working on a project at the same time. Though we work steps away from each other, there are days when we really only see each other a few times. This helps. It’s a treat to see each other after work.
- Both people need to understand the sacrifice that the other is making. In our case, Jane gave up any chance to establish her own professional identity by choosing to work with me. You know how smart she is. She could be an extremely successful lawyer in her own practice. When you understand that your partner is sacrificing something to work with you, it reinforces their value, both personally and professionally.
- Try to create really solid lines between home and work. It sounds easy, but it’s nearly impossible to do all the time. Your personal and professional lives will inevitably bleed into each other. The trick is to not let it consume the marriage.
- Your marriage will not survive if it’s not extremely strong. When it comes down to it, you can always start another firm. Finding another spouse is much different. If you value your marriage, do everything you can to not lose your spouse.
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