Biglaw is suffering — big time. Meanwhile, many smaller and midsize law firms are doing just fine, even thriving. (A number of them — e.g., Silver Golub & Teitell, McKool Smith, and Stone & Magnanini — are expanding, with the help of job postings on Above the Law.)
These days, Am Law 200 firms are generally doing better than their Am Law 100 counterparts. This generally hasn’t been the case, at least in recent years. Industry observers are wondering: Is small beautiful?
That was one theme of Casting a Wider Net: The Rise of the Small to Mid-Sized Law Firm, another panel at yesterday’s conference, co-sponsored by the New York City Bar and Vault, entitled Getting Back in the Game: How to Restart Your Career in a Down Economy. (We wrote about an earlier panel here.)
The panel on small to midsize law firms consisted of:
ALLA ROYTBERG (moderator), Solo Practitioner, and Director, City Bar Small Law Firm Center;
PAUL LIPPE, CEO, Legal On-Ramp;
CORIN LINDSLEY, Managing Director, Major Lindsey & Africa; and
RON GEFFNER, partner, Sadis & Goldberg.
The discussion covered such topics as how to learn about high-quality small firms, how to apply to them, and how to grow one, once you’re there.
A short discussion, after the jump.
Corin Lindsley, of Major, Lindsey & Africa, covered three topics. First, she discussed the appeal of small and midsize firms. Although many young lawyers tend to overlook them, since these firms often don’t recruit on campus, smaller firms have much to recommend them. Many of them pay salaries at or near the top of the market, but offer better work-life balance than big firms. Attorneys at small to mid-size firms often have the opportunity to play a broader role in the work of their clients, offering business as well as legal advice; they don’t hyperspecialize, in the manner of some Biglaw practitioners.
Second, Lindsley reviewed the origins of small firms and why they are thriving. Some are spinoffs from larger firms, occasionally resulting from conflicts (sometimes in terms of clients, and sometimes in terms of personalities). Others are started by talented lawyers leaving government service who don’t want to return to large-firm practice. Small to midsized firms on the rise for a number of reasons, including rate flexibility, a high quality of work, and the cohesion with clients that comes from an ongoing relationship.
Finally, Lindsley offered advice about finding and applying to these firms. If you’re at a large law firm, you can look at where alumni of your firm have ended up; many of these firms will be smaller firms. You can also learn about such firms through networking, reading articles about notable recent cases or deals, and checking out resources like the Chambers rankings (which often recognize smaller firms for their expertise in specific practice areas).
As for applying to these firms, Lindsley emphasized the importance of networking — a recurring theme throughout the conference — and enthusiasm. You’ll have the greatest success in the application process if you are truly excited about the opportunities you’re applying for.
Ron Geffner, a partner at Sadis & Goldberg, offered a perspective on smaller firms from the inside. His firm, with fewer than 30 lawyers, has not had layoffs — and is even expanding, with a San Francisco office, new hires, and new partners. It carries no debt, not even a revolving line of credit; everything the firm does it does out of cash on hand.
The firm is thriving now, with a top-ranked practice in hedge fund work. But things were challenging when Geffner and his partners started out. When the firm was founded, Geffner said he had about $30,000 in business coming in.
How did Geffner and his colleagues build a successful firm from such modest beginnings? First, through a lot of hard work; Geffner said that he still works 16 hour days, full of meetings and conference calls and speaking opportunities. Second, through lots of networking. At a smaller firm, you have to hustle to develop business; you can’t just coast on longstanding institutional relationships. According to Geffner, he meets about 300 people a month. He also helps out reporters; this often leads to media appearances, which are valuable marketing opportunities.
Geffner offered some tips for networking:
Earlier: Breaking Back into Biglaw