Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Growing Up Together

Oprah is ending on May 25. Like most Americans, I am exhibiting signs of Empty Oprah Syndrome. During this time, as I mourn the loss of my “ultimate girlfriend,” I find myself asking one key question: why does Gayle King get to be Oprah’s actual best friend? I would be way better.

There are a few answers to that question. One answer, I guess, could be attributed to the fact that I have never met Oprah Winfrey. The other answer is that Gayle has something I do not. She has a shared history with Oprah, spanning thirty years. In other words, these women grew up together; they were friends before Oprah Winfrey became Oprah.

Why am I talking about Oprah and Gayle? Because I have Empty Oprah Syndrome, remember? And because there might be a lesson here for small-firm lawyers….

Last week I had lunch with the C.O.O. of a start-up company that designs and manufactures green technology. Despite his Biglaw background, the C.O.O. only considered using a small law firm for his new company’s legal needs. Why?

“We needed a firm that would be flexible with the payment terms since new companies are cash-strapped at first. Small firms are more able to be creative in their billing practices. Also, a small-firm delivers the work-product that an start-up needs. For instance, we need pragmatic advice, not break-the-bank memos. And, we wanted the attention that small firms provide.”

How did he choose his small-firm attorney? He received pitches from several different firms. He chose an attorney with an entrepreneurial background — the selected attorney had a small business before becoming a lawyer. (But as we all know, running a law firm is running a business, so any small-firm lawyer who runs his own firm has that same important entrepreneurial background.)

The selected attorney understood the problems that a new company faces. And he did his research:

“As part of his pitch, this attorney met with all of our employees, toured the manufacturing facility, and put in a lot of time just getting to know us. This set him apart from the other attorneys, and from any big firm. I cannot imagine a big firm would do this — at least not for free.”

This seemed great for him, as the client. But I had to wonder: what was in it for the small firm attorney? According to the C.O.O., the answer was the start of a beautiful friendship.

“We have used the same attorney now for four years. What started as small projects turned into much larger matters as we grew. In essence, we grew together: as our company expanded, so did our relationship with our attorney. And, he was betting on this growth — which is why he offered us breaks on the fees at the beginning of the relationship.”

So, what can small-firm lawyers learn from Gayle King? There are benefits to being with a successful enterprise from the beginning.

In the quest for finding profitable client-relationships, small-firm attorneys should target start-up companies that the attorney is willing to bet on and believes will prosper. While there is inherent risk in teaming with a start-up, if the attorney does his due diligence and picks the right company, then the two can “grow up” together. And one day the two can go on a televised cross-country trip and eat deep fried butter. Oh sorry, I guess there are some ways that small-firm attorneys cannot be like Gayle King….


When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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