On March 1, three shareholders of The Schroeder Group S.C. Attorneys at Law walked into the office of company president John Yentz and announced that they and another partner were leaving the Waukesha firm to form their own law group.
“There was no warning,” Yentz said. “It was like a half-hour notice.”
A fifth attorney who was not a shareholder in the firm left about one week later. The company was suddenly reduced from a force of 12 attorneys to just seven.
Until that day, there had been no indication of dissention in the firm’s ranks, according to Stewart Schroeder, founder of the boutique law firm, which is dedicated to serving privately held businesses.
“Personally I was shocked by it,” Schroeder said. “There were differences expressed over issues over time, but nothing I ever saw coming that would have led me to believe would lead to a departure.”
Two of the attorneys who left handled adoption legal work, two dealt with defending insurance companies and another was a business lawyer and litigator, Schroeder said. While several of those practices did not fit with The Schroeder Group’s core focus of serving businesses, the departures were not a pleasant turn of events, Schroeder said.
“They are all very good lawyers,” Schroeder said. “This was not a plus for us. We lost mass, revenue and leverage, and we had too much space with all the empty offices. But it was amicable from a professional standpoint. There’s only one choice, and that’s to do it that way.”
Schroeder acknowledged that the departures sent him into a funk of introspection for a few weeks.
“Personally, I spent an amount of time thinking about the people who left,” he said, adding that he wondered if his firm was doing something wrong.
Schroeder reached out to Susan Marshall, a business consultant and founder of Executive Advisor LLC, based in Oconomowoc. Marshall had worked with The Schroeder Group several years before when Schroeder promoted Yentz to president.
“He did a lot of introspection,” Marshall said of Schroeder. “He has strong ideas of how he wants to run things, and they’re not mainstream. His reaction was, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ That’s normal, and I found it quite endearing.”
Schroeder pondered the situation over a three-week period. With Marshall’s affirmation, he came to the conclusion that The Schroeder Group was on the right path and could survive the ordeal.
“He said, ‘Onward,'” Marshall said. “He demonstrated a real level of humanity and strength in allowing himself to feel the pain and question his beliefs. Many people will shy away from that and won’t allow themselves to do the introspection and look inward. But that’s one of the reasons he’s been so successful.”
Part of that decision, Schroeder said, was talking with his remaining attorneys and support staff.
“It was made obvious to me that my time would be better spent thinking about who was left here,” he said. “We talked to our other partners and asked them what we should change.”
The partners responded in unison – the firm needed to stay the course and keep operating as it had for the previous 10 years.
Prior to March 1, The Schroeder Group had interviewed several potential attorneys because it needed to add at least one litigator.
By July, the firm added attorney Michelle Marsh, a litigator who has experience representing insurance companies. The firm also added attorneys Michael Steinhafel and Cindy Fryda, in October and November, respectively. Steinhafel is a member of the Steinhafel’s Furniture family and worked previously as an assistant district attorney for Milwaukee County. Fryda is an employment attorney and general litigator
The company is still looking for at least one more experienced commercial litigator.
Even after the departure of five attorneys, several of the attorneys at The Schroeder Group have grown their practices significantly this year. Schroeder, Yentz and employment law attorney Sally Peifer each have added to their client roster.
“In late February, we had two substantial practices. Now we’ve still got the two, and Sally’s more than doubled this year. She’s really taken off,” Schroeder said.
Ross Sharkey, who rejoined the firm in 2006, has also experienced significant growth this year.
Steinhafel brought a substantial client base to The Schroeder Group, Schroeder said.
“Common vision is really important. Looking at it today, 2007 will end up being a very nice year. It’s a good place for us. We were looking to add good people that fit in and would understand what we want to do as a firm, that fit into our practice,” Schroeder said.
“The people we have here now have the capability of generating their own practice areas. We’ll add (new attorneys) based on what we see, not based on numbers.”
When he had started The Schroeder Group, he wanted it to be different than most law firms.
Schroeder wanted the firm to function like the businesses it would serve, with a centralized management structure. Sandy McGee, the firm’s chief operating officer, who is not a lawyer, makes day-to-day decisions at the firm.
“We hired a lay person to manage the law firm so our attorneys can practice law,” Schroeder said. “We tried to establish a centralized management structure so our lawyers could concentrate on building their practices and on billable work. The 2 million details are Sandy’s job and have been for going on 10 years. She takes care of all the details so we don’t have to.”
More importantly, the attorneys and support staff needed to work as a team – with client service as the top priority. Teamwork and cooperation have high priorities for the firm, Schroeder said.
“Sandy’s role is to come up with the best atmosphere so people could work their (butts) off,” Schroeder said. “She’s done it from day one, even when we were office sharing. She has the authority to come up with the rules that are followed by everybody, including attorneys.”
The Schroeder Group also offers attorneys and support staff flexible schedules so they can balance work and home life.
“We want to be able to offer our professionals the ability to do their jobs and still have a life,” Schroeder said.