48_Mark Harris

CEO, Axiom Legal

Litigating For Less

As a young associate at a traditional New York law firm, Mark Harris saw an inefficient system. Now he's creating the nation's first virtual law firm. Axiom Legal is comprised of attorneys recruited away from top firms, supported by the Internet instead of fancy offices. After just three years, Axiom has a growing list of blue-chip clients (and bills them 40% of what a white-shoe firm would). On December 9, Harris gathered the firm's 53 lawyers to toast its tripling of revenue in 2003.

From Mark's original entry:

Tell us what you do and the specific challenge you faced.

Mark Harris was a 29 year-old associate in a typical white-shoe New York law firm when he came up with the idea for Axiom Legal. In essence, he wanted to create a whole new kind of legal services firm that liberated great lawyers from the traditional law firm system (where most of them are miserable) and gave clients a more efficient alternative to the mahogany paneled offices and "partnership pyramid" they've been bankrolling. The catch lay in the uniquely conservative nature of the legal profession. For more than a century, large law firms have held a monopoly on high-end corporate legal services and, as a result, have attracted the best legal talent. Innovation in the legal profession is uncommon and generally not tolerated, particularly when it's promoted by an upstart third-year associate.

What was your moment of truth?

In 1999, Harris quit his job at Davis Polk & Wardwell, moved to a cheaper apartment, and spent six months in the same grey suit running his ideas by more than 100 leading lawyers. The plan was for a relatively radical alternative: a virtual firm made up of attorneys recruited away from the best firms, supported by technology instead of the partnership pyramid and fancy office. The lawyers would enjoy the greater freedom and variety they craved, choosing the assignments they wanted to work on. The clients would no longer have to bear exorbitantly high-fees resulting from a bloated cost structure. His early discussions met with a near universal response: "It will never happen." ("I'm skeptical that the overall financial benefits could be significantly better than the current system, either to clients or attorneys," wrote the General Counsel of Avon in a letter dated January 2000.)

What were the results?

Harris founded Axiom Legal in 2000. In just three years, he's built what may be the fastest growing corporate legal services business in the country. Axiom is meeting the needs of many of the nation's biggest, best-known companies, from the largest investment banks to blue-chip technology and consumer products corporations. Axiom's attorneys are running around with laptops, doing sophisticated work and enjoying the kind of practice they hoped to have but were unable to find in prior lives. And clients get the benefits of superb and - uniquely - happy lawyers at half the cost. As the first viable alternative to the traditional law firm, Axiom's business has quadrupled in the past 12 months and their client list reads like a "who's who" of corporate America. Industry insider Peter Zeughauser, an American Lawyer Columnist and the former Chairman of the American Corporate Counsel Association, says "Axiom is one of the most promising and exciting new developments in the legal sector in decades."

What's your parting tip?

It's all about the people.

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