By Neil Cotiaux | Photo by Jim Baron
It’s not just father and daughter who turn the traditional rule against hiring family members on its head but also the husband-wife, mother-son, brother-sister, and other relationships inside the Cleveland law firm that keep things interesting.
In all, 14 individuals at the 79-person firm are related to as many as three other employees, threads in an unusual multifamily fabric at a practice that is making a name for itself in the area of subrogation law.
“In the law business you will typically find an anti-nepotism clause,” says Joel Rathbone, managing partner of a practice that traces its lineage back to two other firms in which he, his mother Nancy, and daughter Kimberly have played varying roles.
While outsiders may find the large complement of relatives at Rathbone Group bewildering, it’s paying off for the firm, according to the principals.
“The combinations cross the entire company, from lawyers to specialists to processing to bookkeeping to human resources,” Kim Rathbone says. “It must be that the work ethic is one of the important core values upon which the families have been raised. I know that is true for me.”
Staffing up with relatives within multiple families not only capitalizes on shared values but also creates a greater sense of job commitment, Joel and Kimberly say. Ultimately, they believe, family members who work together help create a more intimate company portrait to which clients respond favorably.
At the same time, those at the top must guard against real or perceived favoritism, dispense compensation and shares in the business with care and know when and how to speak about non-business matters, according to a presentation made by dad and daughter at a Council of Smaller Enterprises’ small business workshop.
The seeds of Rathbone Group were first sown in 1986 when Joel exited another law firm to work with his mother at Rathbone & Lamson. Kim, in high school, served as a receptionist and file clerk.
It was Joel who had inspired his mom to attend law school. “I actually got to hand her her diploma,” he remembers emotionally.
Soon, Rathbone & Lamson merged with another firm which itself morphed into Javitch, Block & Rathbone, where Joel was co-managing partner and where Kim, law degree now in hand, later led the insurance subrogation practice, then a rapidly emerging specialty.
“He made it clear I was on my own,” Kim says of her father. “He actually didn’t speak to me very much about work at all those first few years. He refused to sponsor me to become a partner and I needed to earn the respect of others to obtain partnership. It sounds harsh, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
By August 2014 Joel and Kim were ready to step out on their own.
Creating Rathbone Group to capitalize on the red-hot subrogation field, Joel established offices in eight states and the District of Columbia to investigate claims in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Canada on behalf of auto and home insurers that make good on customer claims that may be recoverable from a third party.
By bringing “substantial cash volume” back into an insurance carrier, Joel says, the carrier strengthens its balance sheet while getting deductibles back into the hands of policyholders, breeding greater customer loyalty.
Joel says the firm now handles 800 new claims a month and that 25,000 cases are in play at any given time.
Rathbone Group also represents self-insured banks as they seek to recover damages resulting from accidents at drive-up ATMs and other company properties. Across various industries, “We view this to be a substantial representation opportunity, especially locally,” Kim says.
Inside the firm, father and daughter lunch together each day, and Kim gets to see her husband, Ian, who works at the practice part-time while pursuing an engineering degree.
While Kim is the primary contact for clients, Joel, now 65, handles most administrative matters and has begun training his daughter in those tasks.
What she’s learned most from her dad, she says, is that, while a law firm is still a business that should be run profitably, each employee must be treated fairly.
“We accept each other as who we are, faults and all,” Kim says of her relationship with her father. “When acceptance and respect is at the core of the relationship, it’s hard to go wrong.”
For more information: rathbonegroup.com
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