What do you call a smiling, courteous person at a bar association convention?
“It’s a running joke that ‘happy lawyers’ is an oxymoron because most lawyers are not happy,” says Martin Carroll, managing partner and litigation chairman at Chicago-based Fox Swibel Levin & Carroll LLP. “But I think our lawyers are happy.”
Just over twenty years ago, Carroll and a few colleagues left “big firms” to create a firm with a new model—what he describes as “a boutique business environment.” The firm is now known as Fox Swibel Levin & Carroll LLP.
“The idea was that we just wanted to do things completely differently,” Carroll says. “We wanted to have a great atmosphere for our attorneys to work in, and we wanted our clients to get really good lawyers at a fair price. We don’t overstaff our cases or our deals, we don’t have billable-hour requirements for our lawyers, and we have flexibility to represent individuals or middle-market companies. We could never have done that at our old firms.”
Growing up in suburban Chicago, Carroll figured out pretty quickly that he wanted to be a lawyer. “In high school, I just decided that’s what I was going to do,” he says.
Perhaps it was genetic; his grandfather, who passed away before he was born, was “a really good lawyer,” Carroll says. His parents were both college professors, which helped Carroll develop a love for history. In college, he majored in English and history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and he went on to the London School of Economics and Political Science for a master’s degree, then the University of Michigan Law School for his JD.
“I just knew I wanted to be a lawyer, I don’t know why,” Carroll explains. “I really, really enjoy problem-solving. I love counseling. My kids know this: if there’s any problem, I get very analytic and we systematically go through issues. It’s fun to come in and help somebody and say, ‘Okay, you’re doing it this way, but if you do it this way, here’s how we could fix this.’
“Lawyers are an interesting breed,” he continues. “We are problem solvers at our essence. I’m involved right now in a case that’s really complex. And boy, your brain synapses are really firing, because you’ve got to think things out. I like that. It keeps me motivated. I actually enjoy my job.”
The Making of a Happy Lawyer
Carroll wasn’t always happy at work. As with many entrepreneurs, he founded a new firm because the work experience he was getting at other firms wasn’t the right fit for him.
“I knew almost from the get-go that I didn’t really love big-firm life,” he says. “I liked the training and I liked a lot of the people, but I was way too impatient. The problem is, at a lot of big firms you don’t get a chance to try cases. You don’t get into court right away or handle major matters. You really are a research and writing person. That’s what you do—for years. And that was not me.”
When Carroll had the opportunity to join a smaller, litigation-only firm, he jumped at the chance. He started getting the court experiences he was craving—but soon, he realized he wanted even more.
“I wanted more of a full-service firm that did corporate work,” he says. “That’s why, in 2000, we merged with another small boutique firm, and it became what is now Fox Swibel Levin & Carroll.”
Today, Carroll chairs the litigation practice and serves as managing partner, as well. “I’ve been sentenced to [the managing partner] role,” he jokes. “No hope for parole in a while.”
He notes that in big firms, managing partners only manage the firm’s business. At Fox Swibel Levin & Carroll, he’s also a practicing lawyer who focuses on commercial litigation—“a lot of breach of contract and fraud cases, as well as non-compete, non-solicit, trade secret cases”—but also acts as outside general counsel for many companies.
“About half of my practice now, interestingly, has changed in the last ten years,” he says. “On a day-to-day basis, almost half of my time is reviewing contracts and counseling clients on about their businesses. I love it. It’s completely different than the rest of my practice, which is going to court and arguing motions and trying cases. But I like the diversity.”
Where FSLC Meets EO
Helping mid-sized businesses receive counseling from top-tier lawyers at a cost they can afford is a founding principle of Fox Swibel Levin & Carroll. So when a client suggested the firm become a Strategic Alliance Partner for EO Chicago, Carroll and his colleague David Morris were intrigued.
As lawyers, they had to do their due diligence before jumping in. But after inquiring about EO with their connections at Signature Bank, another Strategic Alliance Partner, Carroll and Morris knew the partnership would be a great fit.
In the four years since, Carroll and Morris have presented at forums and helped many EO members. Some of the key topics discussed include:
- Operating agreements. “A lot of EO members have another partner, but their operating agreement doesn’t address things like: what if there’s a dispute and somebody leaves?” Carroll explains, adding, “How do you handle equity raises? Are you going to need to go get more money?”
- Employment matters. “One of our employment partners can come to a forum and talk about hiring, firing, handbooks—all of the nuts and bolts,” he says. “Everybody has employment issues.”
- Non-competes, non-solicits, and trade secrets. “Do you need a non-compete or a non-solicit with your employees? If you have trade secrets, how do you protect them? That’s something I’ve always done a lot of work on.”
- Intellectual property (IP). “I think a lot of people don’t think about their IP. Do they have a product? Do they have a company name? Do you need to protect that copyright? Do they have content out there that they want to protect? There are some simple things to do. Patents are a whole different issue, but basic IP is something that we can give a talk about because a lot of people don’t protect their IP.”
As a problem-solver by nature, Carroll thrives on meeting business owners and talking to them about how their company is set up.
“I think we add a ton of value, and we do not pitch our firm at all,” he says. “This is not a marketing opportunity—we’re really there to deliver content and content only. We’re here to help spot issues and figure out some things that they may need to help their business operate better.”
He’ll not only help solve problems—he’ll do it with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.
“A good friend of mine works at a really large firm in town, and at one point, he was complaining about his job,” Carroll recalls. “I said, ‘I like what I do.’ And he replied, ‘You’re literally the only lawyer I know who likes their job.’”