Biglaw, Boutique Law Firms, California, Litigators, Silicon Valley, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Trading Places

Tom Wallerstein

Yeah, some people thought I might be nuts for leaving litigation powerhouse Quinn Emanuel. But the prospects of starting my own firm and building a practice from the ground up were too compelling to ignore. Nearly two and a half years have passed since Colt Wallerstein LLP opened its doors, and still not a day goes by when my partner and I aren’t humbled by our good fortune and our decision to “trade places”: that is, move from Biglaw to start a litigation boutique in Silicon Valley that focuses on high-tech trade secret, employment, and complex-commercial litigation.

I graduated from law school in 1999, and the legal market was very different then. Getting into a “top” law school pretty much guaranteed a job, and most of my law school friends and I had multiple offers and no real concern about landing a Biglaw job, if that’s what we wanted. Offer rates hovered around 100%, and of course the lucrative summers consisted mostly of long lunches at five-star restaurants, luxury box seats at baseball games, open bars, and very little work.

Those were the days….

I was fortunate to land my gig at the prestigious Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller, following my judicial clerkship. The lawyers there were phenomenal and offered substantial early experience. Just as importantly, they emphasized efficient, cost-effective service, an approach that would later become one of the cornerstones of my own firm’s philosophy.

After several years, however, I knew it was time to get back to San Francisco, where I had lived before law school. The differences in attitude and culture between West Coast and East Coast are palpable, and I knew it was time to get back to where the climate suits my clothes.

I started considering Quinn Emanuel, and the more I learned, the more it sounded like a place I wanted to practice. They valued a trial lawyer’s “fire in the belly,” and I could relate. I wanted to try cases, in court, with and against the best lawyers possible. And I wanted to win. While wearing flip-flops. all in lowercase.

QE was everything people say it is, and more. Its focus on actually taking big-ticket, high-profile cases to trial — and winning — was pretty appealing to me.

As I continued to develop my practice, I learned the obvious: Lots of Biglaw firms had become so successful that they only needed or wanted the biggest cases. Cases worth only several hundred thousand dollars or sometimes even several million dollars often could not be economically handled at some firms. Eventually, I found myself turning away business from good potential clients who just couldn’t afford to hire my firm because of the “limited” amount at stake.

When the Great Recession hit, more than ever, I heard clients clamoring for a less expensive alternative to Biglaw, but without giving up the same focus on results. The seeds were sown for Colt Wallerstein.

When my partner and I crunched the numbers, I was surprised by how few billable hours were needed to match or exceed the generous salary we were earning. We planned our move and took the plunge.

We were off to a good start when I heard David Lat give a talk about the dramatically changing demands for legal services. (That paradigm shift that David described has some intriguing implications that I hope to explore further in this column.)

ATL noted our “adventure in shingle hanging,” and since that time — so far, knock on wood — our little boutique has thrived. We’ve moved into a bigger, beautiful office space (between Oracle and Electronic Arts), and we’ve added two full-time employees and two part-time admins to help. We’re doing virtually the same work we were doing in Biglaw, although admittedly with fewer zeroes attached to the numbers at stake. We’re actually busier now, but with more control over our schedules, than we were in Biglaw, when we routinely billed 2,400 hours or more.

I am not an apologist for some of the well-known abuses of Biglaw. Firms are made up of people, and people — especially those who have what it takes to succeed in Biglaw — are imperfect. So, yes, many of the horror stories are true, as Will Meyerhofer and many others know.

But when you’re being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to work at a desk in a comfortable office, I never felt much right to complain.

I also underestimated how much fun it could be to run your own business and grow your own firm. I didn’t consider that litigation is much more fun when you make all the decisions, not to mention take all the depositions, try the cases and — need I add? — keep most of the money paid by the clients.

On the other hand, none of my limited success would have been possible without my Biglaw experience.

I’ve spoken to dozens of Biglaw associates, partners, and in-house counsel about the trials and tribulations, costs and benefits of “trading places,” and starting a small firm or boutique practice. I’m learning as I go and I don’t pretend to have all the answers for everyone. But I do know what has worked for me and my firm. I look forward to sharing, over the coming weeks, some of my thoughts with whomever cares to read them.


Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at tomwallerstein@coltwallerstein.com.

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