Boutique Law Firms, Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners

What We Talk About When We Talk About Small Law Firms

Last week, I made the decision to jump right into the substantive portion of this column. Based on the queries and comments hitting my inbox, though, I thought I would take another shot at explaning my intentions behind this column, before returning to your regularly scheduled programming.

The following email came in earlier this week from a reader who practices at a small law firm:

Can you clarify what “small law” means? Do you mean law in a smaller city/town? Or smaller-sized firms in larger places? Or are we talking about law firms that deal with clients who have less wealth (i.e., I do divorces vs. I did Madonna’s divorce)?

Lawyers love definitional questions. So let’s get into it….

I answered (in part) with the following:

In my head, “small law” refers to a firm with a small number of attorneys, regardless of location. I am basing column ideas on my personal experience, which was a smaller firm by size (for the record, I was one of four lawyers in an outpost office of a 25-lawyer firm), and located in a small town.

While my statement technically answered the question, it ignored the larger issue, an issue that’s been a concern since this column was merely a thought swimming in my head: Do the varied “small law” practices provide enough of a common ground on which to build an all encompassing column?

Obviously, I think so — and I suppose only time and the comments will tell if I’m right — but here’s at least a partial list of the cohesive elements I see:

  • The pressure on young associates to build a book of business from day one.
  • The lack of structured guidance, aka the “sink or swim” approach to learning the practice of law.
  • The freedom and corresponding pressures that come with being solely responsible for your caseload
  • The necessity of being a businessperson and a lawyer.
  • Small Law doesn’t necessarily equal fewer hours.

Despite the idiosyncrasies within the somewhat ironically defined “Small Law” collective, there are certain commonalities. But the existence of these similarities doesn’t negate the differences that abound, and inevitably you will find that your experiences don’t align exactly with those that I describe. I expect that.

What I also expect is for you to continue to be vocal about those differences, in the comments and via email. I view this column not as a lecture on the elements of Small Law, but as a discussion of what one should expect from working in a small firm. I have little doubt that since the inception of this site, those entering Biglaw are a much more informed group than they otherwise would have been, an effect that gets to the real impetus for this column.

There is a distinct lack of information about the Small Law option for students and practitioners alike. We have much better information about large law firms, i.e., Biglaw. Again, the heterogeneous nature of small firms is partly to blame, as information is difficult to collect and organize. But, as Carolyn Elefant points out, not even the ABA started covering Small Law until recently (and frankly, it seems we shouldn’t be waiting around for the ABA to take action for us on necessary improvements anyway). I find this informational vacuum quite troubling.

Maybe if more information is readily available, more people will choose Small Law over Biglaw, thereby unclogging the traffic jam headed for equity partnerships. Or, more to Elie’s liking, maybe if students realized what the majority of private practice looked like, they’d forgo law school all together. What do you wish you would have known when you were (a) contemplating a legal career, (b) graduating, or (c) looking to leave Biglaw? Well, your contemporaries are out there, and they’re asking for answers.

I don’t claim to be the authority on Small Law, especially in the broad sense in which I’m discussing it here, but I do have an interest in creating a forum for the collection of information. Perhaps we do need to parse the column into smaller bites — e.g., Small Law in Small Towns; Small Law in Big Cities; Solo Practitioners Only. I’m willing to entertain that idea. Like any writer with a new column, I’m continually working to find a proper voice and direction.

In so doing, I read your comments (even the harsh ones) with interest, and I take notes from your emails. Together I hope we can corral the many heads of Small Law together in one place and give the public a better source of information on which to judge its merits, rather than continue to summarily dismiss it on its face.

In the meantime, here are some established blogs and other resources that I’d recommend for those with an eye toward a smaller practice:

As always, please email me with comments, suggestions, and news about Small Law. Happy Thursday.

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of small law firms

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