No matter the size of your firm – even those with thousands of attorneys on staff – litigation is complicated. For smaller firms, the challenges ...
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In our Attorney Spotlight series, the Lexis® Legal Advantage team will be interviewing attorneys successfully managing small practices, sharing their tips for success and nuances they’ve had to navigate along the way.
Today the spotlight shines on Cory and Allison Sprunger, law school sweethearts and owners and managing partners of Sprunger & Sprunger, an Indiana-based law firm. The pair reside in Berne, Indiana with their two children and their Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, Edelweiss.
Any managing partner knows the trials of running a private practice, but the unique challenges of being married to your partner and business partner bring a whole new set of considerations. Allison and Cory sat down for a Q&A with the Lexis Legal Advantage team to discuss the factors that go into balancing practice management and family life, as well as to share tips for other married attorneys looking to take a similar path.
Cory: Allison and I met in law school at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California on the first day of orientation. I was accepted to both Indiana University and Pepperdine law schools, and had struggled to decide between the two all the way up until the week that classes started. On orientation day, I was standing in line waiting to register, and heard someone talking behind me. That person was Allison. We soon discovered that she also struggled between the same two law schools and eventually landed on Pepperdine. We clicked right away, and got married between our 2L and 3L years.
Allison: We moved back to Indiana after law school. We knew we eventually wanted to run our own practice together, but we also needed the security of a steady income to do that, so I accepted a job at the Allen County Prosecutor’s office while Cory focused on opening his own practice. After about a year in business, the practice was doing really well, so I quit my prosecutor job to join the firm as a partner.
Cory: I spent some time during my 3L year putting together a basic business plan/model. The thought was nerve-wracking at first but I just went for it; then after about a year, the practice was doing great. We had to get forbearance on some of our student loans right out of law school so we could put our money into the new practice, but once the practice started to take off we were able to resume paying off student debt. We also had to take out a business loan at first to furnish the office and pay for other expenses, but before we even hit the one-year mark, the practice was doing well enough that we were able to pay all of that off. Fast forward to now: we have five attorneys, five staff members and three locations across three counties.
Cory: I really enjoy the business side of the practice, whereas Allison loves the law aspect of the job. While we each play both of those roles, I enjoy managing staff, paperwork and making business decisions, while Allison enjoys poring over the law and being an attorney. We make the big business decisions together, but for the most part I run the business and she focuses on being a great attorney. We also divide up the legal practices to suit our respective strengths, which allows us to offer our clients very specialized services. I handle all civil law cases, real estate, estate planning, estate administration and personal injury while Allison handles all criminal and family law cases. It has really worked out well for us.
Cory: To be honest, I don’t know how non-spouses run a firm together. Being married allows us to be really frank with each other—there is no red tape or tiptoeing around sensitive subjects. When you are married you can be more straightforward and honest with each other and focus on getting things done. You can talk about all your cases and bounce ideas off of each other without worrying about confidentiality issues, which is nice.
Allison: I know some married attorneys who specifically chose not to work at the same firm because they know they may not work well together, so I think it can also depend on your personalities. Personally, I like being able to have the team atmosphere both at home and at work. It’s nice to come home and be able to talk to each other about what’s going on at work without having to fill in all the background information—he already has all the context. Having that common ground brings us closer together. On the flip side, though, it can be difficult for us to “turn off” work mode once we get home.
Cory: The firm is open from 9 to 5, but we work from 8:30 to 5:30. The goal is to stop working at 5 p.m. and discuss our work with each other from 5 to 5:30, before heading to pick up our daughter Zoey. That’s our download time with each other. Once we get home, we try not to discuss work again until after she’s in bed. We aren’t always great at following that rule, but when we do our lives are much more balanced.
Allison: Yes, that’s the goal—we want to be able to focus on our daughter during her awake hours in the evening. Once she’s in bed though, I personally don’t mind talking about work. Since we work together, our work lives and personal lives are kind of fluid with each other, so it’s not really a burden to me. I like both my work and home life, so I don’t mind if they mix sometimes.
Cory: It gives us an advantage in that we are able to set the tone for the rest of the office because Allison and I are on the same page. If there’s an issue, we work it out between us so that it doesn’t affect the staff. We work really hard to maintain an atmosphere of calm and peace, both within the office and when we are dealing with clients in high-stress situations. I think clients really appreciate that—it helps them feel settled enough to work through difficult legal situations.
Cory: We averaged how long the typical case takes us and just charge that. Clients love it. They know what to expect and don’t scrutinize the bills, which in turn saves us a lot of time. Sure, if a case ends up taking longer than average we lose money, but that’s okay. The influx of clients we get because of the flat fee option makes up for it.
Cory: One thing to keep in mind is that federal student debts are much more lenient than private. It’s generally a bad idea to move those over to private, even if the interest rate is lower, because it sacrifices the flexibility that the federal government offers. You need that flexibility to defer your loans long enough to set up a successful practice. If you have to do forbearance for a year or so, that’s okay. Another thing to consider when opening a private practice is location. Big cities are going to make it more difficult to survive. A lot of smaller or rural counties are in need of attorneys because few attorneys are willing to live there.There is a lot of opportunity if you’re willing to go looking for it.
Allison: It’s also important to gather as much wisdom as you can before you start. Cory had lunch with 10-plus attorneys with their own practices and asked how they started and what to expect. One of the biggest things we learned is that you shouldn’t expect to make any money until after the first year, so it’s important to plan for that financially. It also really helps to set up practice in an area where you already know people. Starting with some trust already in place helps a lot.
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