What is the Key to Successful Collaboration Between Law Firms?
Founding a successful firm is a challenge for any lawyer, but successfully joining that firm to another is an even greater feat.
This month we have the pleasure of speaking with two attorneys who have managed both. Melanie Damian and Tom Culmo of Damian & Valori LLP | Culmo Trial Attorneys speak with us on how their firms came to collaborate, the challenges they faced along the way, and the advice they have to give other lawyers who are considering joining their firms.
To begin with, please tell us a bit about the nature of your collaboration. How do Damian & Valori LLP and Culmo Trial Attorneys work alongside each other?
Damian & Valori LLP, a business litigation law firm, and Culmo Trial Attorneys, a plaintiff’s personal injury law firm, joined forces to help victims of financial wrongdoing and those who have been victimised by the wrongful acts of others, leading to serious injury or death. The goal of the collaboration is to leverage Tom’s trial advocacy skills on the complex business cases and expand the services we can provide to our clients and referral sources. For example, Melanie’s sophisticated understanding of corporate management, finances and the internal workings of businesses from the Receivership practice provides a resource for Tom in his dealings with private corporations and potential fraud cases. At the same time, Tom’s thorough investigation skills and extensive trial experience help the firm in its preparation for mediations, depositions, and trial in complex business cases.
In addition, the two firms leverage each of our extended networks to benefit each of our respective practice areas and develop a robust network, and that has helped expand and grow the law firm and better serve our clients.
What brought your firms into contact, and what motivated you to collaborate in this way?
For several years leading up to the official announcement of our collaboration, our two firms regularly worked together on a variety of matters. From referrals to co-counselling on important cases, we had been naturally collaborating for several years. While an unusual collaboration, the synergies were immediately apparent in that the breadth of experience among the attorneys and expertise that is complementary and provides an opportunity to expand both firms’ practice areas.
What legal and logistical considerations did you need to take into account when you decided to link your practices?
Because the collaboration is unique, we had to consider first how it would work and how we would refer to our collaboration from a branding perspective. We ultimately settled on a dual brand and the process is ongoing. Working together was actually more natural than explaining the collaboration.
Because the collaboration is unique, we had to consider first how it would work and how we would refer to our collaboration from a branding perspective.
Did you encounter any major obstacles in the course of joining your firms?
Just as we announced the collaboration in March 2020, the world shut down due to COVID-19. This presented a challenge to joining our firms because our lawyers were not able to work in close collaboration to understand and engage in brainstorming ideas as a team as well as they might have because of remote work. We also faced the challenge that we were unable to raise awareness and properly introduce the collaboration to our respective networks in traditional forums ,such as networking events and lunches.
How did you overcome these challenges together?
To help address this challenge, we worked on new joint “Firm Values” remotely as a team. Also, when we were able, we reinstituted firm events and all-attorney lunches. We also developed a more comprehensive marketing and advertising strategy that would ensure our new firm brand and news of our collaboration was reaching potential referral sources and that our long-time friends and clients were aware of how we were working together. Our strategy included remote speaking, targeted sponsorship and ramping up our social media efforts to ensure we remained top of mind amongst our network of clients, who we know are active on social media.
Now that your firms are joined, what benefits have you both experienced from the collaboration?
In the year and half since we launched our collaboration, we have been able to expand our client base and increase the number of cases we have been working year over year. Having a more robust team behind both practices has allowed us to attract additional talent and grow each of our respective practices, as well as get involved in large antitrust cases – one of the goals of our collaboration.
In the year and half since we launched our collaboration, we have been able to expand our client base and increase the number of cases we have been working year over year.
What else has changed? Have there been any drawbacks to the new arrangement?
Nothing has changed, but there has been growth and strengthening of all of our collective practice areas. Tom has jumped in to handle litigation cases in several of the receivership matters the firm is involved with and has teamed up with the other partners and associates on other business litigation and personal injury cases. It has all been very positive.
What advice would you give to firms that are considering a similar arrangement to your own?
Make sure your values are aligned. Oftentimes, even if the business arrangements make sense, if the priorities or values are not aligned the collaboration will not make sense. For example, while law firms are certainly businesses if the one partner values profit over service and the other service over profit the collaboration won’t work. One early team activity was establishing our “Firm Values”. It helped us define and develop an understanding of who we are together and communicate it throughout the firm at every level. Our values are: Integrity, Graciousness, Ownership, Heart and Soul, Excellence, Loyalty and Persistence.
About Melanie Damian and Tom Culmo
Can you tell us more about your individual journeys into law?
Melanie: I always wanted to be an attorney for as long as I can remember – inspired by Perry Mason and LA Law because I did not know any actual lawyers growing up. I had this idea that I should fight for other people. The only thing that would change over the years is the type of lawyer I would be (criminal, civil, international law). When I finally had the opportunity to work as a clerk in law school it was at a business litigation firm, Bailey Hunt Jones and Busto, that does not exist anymore. But I loved it so much, I knew I had found what I wanted to do.
Tom: As a lifelong athlete, I have always been drawn to competition. I always thought being a lawyer would allow me to pick a side and compete. When I took a trial advocacy class in law school, I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I started doing insurance defence work and after a short time knew I wanted to represent regular people who needed someone to fight for them. I was fortunate to have met a great trial lawyer who I convinced to give me that opportunity. Don Russo, who was a mentor to many very successful young trial lawyers, hired me in 1992 and the rest is history.
What drove you to found your own firms?
Melanie: After eight years and more than 18,000 hours of working in a midsize law firm, although an incredibly good experience for me, I realised that the business model, was not sustainable for me in the long term. I realised that if I stayed, I would not have freedom to grow into the professional I wanted to become in either my work life or my personal life. So, in July 2004, I took the risk of starting a firm with Peter Valori. It was a slow process, and it took perseverance, many late hours, and many donated free services, but we built loyalty amongst our clients, and today I am proud of the firm we have built.
Tom: My father and grandfather each had their own small businesses and being around them was a huge influence on me. Like them, after four great years with Don, I realised I wanted to have my own business and my own firm. I took the leap with only four clients and hit the ground running. I was again fortunate to have the friendship and mentoring of some great lawyers who helped me and had my back as I built my practice: Gene Kubicki, Mike Josephs, Lew Jack and Andy Haggard, to name a few.
What plans do you have for Damian & Valori LLP I Culmo Trial Attorneys in the final quarter of the year and beyond?
We aim to continue what we have been doing and continue to build upon this new foundation. We all work really hard and enjoy what we do. Practicing law and engaging in the community with people you like, and respect is a privilege and a blessing. It is also a lot of fun.
Melanie Damian and Tom Culmo, Co-Founders and Partners
Address: 1000 Brickell Avenue, Suite 1020, Miami, Florida 33131
Telephone: +1 305-371-3960
Fax: +1 305-371-3965
Damian & Valori LLP | Culmo Trial Attorneys is an AV Rated business litigation and personal injury firm. The firm provides its clients with professional, high quality, experienced counselling, strategic advice and representation in litigating and resolving complicated business and corporate disputes, and personal injury matters. The firm also represents individuals and families who have been victimized by negligent conduct, defective products. The practice areas focus on hospital malpractice, personal injury, premises liability, product liability, and wrongful death cases.
Melanie Damian, co-founder of Damian & Valori LLP and partner of Damian & Valori LLP | Culmo Trial Attorneys, represents public and private companies and individuals in a variety of complex business and securities litigation. She has been appointed as an equity receiver in 19 federal court cases and 21 state court cases and regularly serves as court-appointed Federal Equity Receiver, Special Monitor, and Distribution Agent.
Ms Damian is a past chair of the Business Law Section of the Florida Bar, President of the International Women’s Forum (IWF) Florida Chapter and is active in child advocacy. She is also the founder of two south Florida non for profits, Educate Tomorrow and SEED School of Miami that serve the educational needs of at-risk children.
Tom Culmo, founder of Culmo Trial Attorneys, practices in the areas of hospital malpractice, personal injury, premises liability, product defects, wrongful death, and commercial litigation matters. He is board certified as a specialist in civil trial practice by The Florida Bar and the National Board of Trial Advocacy and is a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates. He has been lead counsel in over 100 jury trials, obtained jury verdicts in 25 different counties in Florida, and has successfully represented clients in claims against a large number of hospitals and hospital corporations.
Mr Culmo has received numerous professional acknowledgments throughout his career. He has been repeatedly included in The Best Lawyers in America, has received the “AV” pre-eminent rating from the Martindale Hubbell peer review directory, and is a member the American Board of Trial Advocates.