Being a Chicagoan, I am serious about my deep-dish pizza. I am so serious, in fact, that I recently went on a pizza tour. Along with six other people (all tourists for some unknown reason) and our guide (a curiously skinny pizza aficionado), we sampled a slice from three famous pizzerias. One of the restaurants began as a small family business and grew to a restaurant chain with multiple locations.
During the download part of the tour, we all unbuttoned the top button of our jeans and opined on which pizza was the best. The consensus was that the chain restaurant was not as good as the others. The Pizza Sherpa agreed with our assessment, but concluded that he would “not mind owning a piece” of the chain restaurant. I was shocked that our guide was willing to sell out like that, but I understood his sentiment that bigger is better when it comes to money-making pizza operations.
On a similar note, since I began writing this column, I have spoken to many lawyers who have started their own small law firms. During our conversations, I always ask what the lawyer envisions for the future of his/her small firm. The answer is the same: managed growth wherein the firm grows in size, but maintains its small-firm feel.
I am now in a deep existential crisis. Here I have devoted my life (or at least a few hours a week) to promoting all that is good about small law firms, when it appears than no one really wants to stay small. Is small only a place to start?
At some point, the big guns in Biglaw started small. Indeed, in 1948, there was a great small firm founded by some guys in New York named Marshall Skadden, John Slate, and Les Arps. Is Biglaw just another way of discussing a small firm that succeeded?
According to at least one firm, the answer is no. Los Angeles-based Liner Grode Stein Yankelevitz Sunshine Regenstreif & Taylor has decreased in size by nearly half in the past five years. And the attorneys at Liner Grode are happy about it (at least the ones who were not laid off).
Partners say the new size fits. “Less is more,” Liner said. “It has been very helpful for us to be smaller. It’s given us much more flexibility and ability to be — not to overuse the word — agile. I have no desire in creating a large law firm.”
The experience at Liner Grode has provided me with only moderate comfort. The economy forced the management at Liner Grode to downsize (and to a size that is still rather large for small-firm standards). Are there firms out there who chose to stay small and not grow? Or, do all small firms wish to grow as large as they can? After all, this column has taught me that a small law firm is a business, and who doesn’t want an increasingly profitable business?
Well, you tell me. There appears to be a tipping point for many small firms that when they increase to a certain size they cease being a “small firm” and become “a firm smaller than Biglaw.” Please email me your thoughts on whether your small firm aspires for the former or the latter, and why.
Stay tuned for the results.
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.