Biglaw, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Beauty Contests

When I was in Biglaw, I always dreamed of taking part in a beauty contest. I do not really understand how it goes down, but it sounded very exciting (at least more than my fifty-state-survey.) According to YouTube, it looks something like this.

When I went to the small firm, I did not hear mention of beauty contests. Clients mostly came through referrals, and any client pitches were much more informal. For instance, I heard a story about two partners trying to get an FLSA class action, so they went to the employer’s factory and donned the poultry processor workers’ uniforms (and perhaps touched some chicken parts going down the conveyor belt). Unlike the stories of the Biglaw beauty contests, there were not lawyer teams from several other small firms lined up in their chicken-suits.

If a team from Skadden or Sidley were lined up in chicken-garb, however, how would the small-firm attorneys best position themselves to win the contest? I asked some Biglaw-turned-small-firm attorneys for their best tips….

(1) Focus On Efficiency

In these economic times, small and big clients are paying extra attention to their legal bills and doing their best to be cost-effective. This is one of the main advantages that small firms offer: quality work at a lower cost. So, anytime you are pitching a client, emphasize how you staff your cases or your deals leanly. And, explain that for the same cost, a small-firm partner can handle matters that would be left to Biglaw associates (who would do the work less efficiently and less effectively). Who wouldn’t want to go with the option that offers more bang for the buck?

(2) Build Credibility

Oftentimes, your job as outside counsel is to make in-house counsel look good. And in-house counsel are focused on keeping their job. It is easier to stomach a large legal expense or to explain away a bad result when it comes from an established Biglaw firm. So, it makes sense why some in-house counsel may be reluctant to retain unknown small firms. To overcome this initial burden, you need to build credibility. To do this, consider going after smaller matters where there is less at stake (and where it is less of a risk for an in-house counsel to choose your firm). If you do good work on the smaller matters, you will have built your own name recognition as if you were an AmLaw 100 firm.

(3) Get Up Close And Personal

Beyond the financial benefits of going with a less-costly small firm, small firms offer another advantage that Biglaw cannot: personal attention. A small-firm attorney dealing with smaller matters is better able to answer a client’s request right away. Similarly, the small-firm lawyer is able to deal directly with the client without going through multiple layers of attorneys. So, when you are pitching a client, make sure that the client knows that he/she will be dealing directly with you, rather than going through a myriad of other attorneys who are only aware of their unique part of the case or deal.

(4) Emphasize Your Ability To Make Friends

E-discovery is something that scares many clients. That fear may cause some clients to opt for Biglaw out of a belief that the small firm cannot handle a massive document review. The combination of co-counseling with other small firms and technological innovations, however, make that fear an irrational one. Explain this to the client. And forward them any proceedings relating to the McDermott case to remind them that when it comes to e-discovery, bigger is not always better.

(5) Conflicts Don’t Matter

There are many small firms that were formed by Biglaw partners who were unable to continue representing their clients based on conflicts of interest. For instance, Telecommunications Law Professionals was recently formed as a Paul Hastings spin-off based on conflicts. This is another selling point that you should emphasize.

(6) Find Your Sweet Spot

There are certain deals or cases that a small firm cannot handle, for example sophisticated deals that require the resources of multiple practice areas or mega-lawsuits that require an army. There are many cases and deals, however, that a small firm is better able to handle AND that other firms (big or small) may not be aware of. The challenge is to identify that “sweet spot” and then aggressively target those matters. In other words, create your niche.

Please email me if you have any other winning tips on how small firms can win a beauty contest against Biglaw. Otherwise, take these tips, put on your evening gown, wish for world peace, and go get that client.

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 and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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