Tom Wallerstein

This is the time of year when everyone pulls out a Top Ten list of one thing or another. I don’t mind; a Top Ten list is a convenient format for reflection and New Year’s Eve has always been a time of reflection for me, whether that involves setting goals or just thinking about the ups and downs of the past year. So I thought I would use the opportunity to offer my perspective of the Top Ten Differences Between Biglaw and Boutique. So without further ado, let’s push in the button and let the top ten play:

10. Money, Money

When you work at a firm, you get paid either a salary or an hourly rate. You get employer-paid benefits and you might even get a bonus. But you know the firm is billing you out at hundreds of dollars an hour, and your hourly wage comes nowhere near that. When you run your own shop, you don’t get a salary but you keep all the money paid by your clients, or recovered in a contingent fee agreement. Of course, you’re also responsible for all the expenses.

Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on a lot of factors and varies by individual, but no one can deny that the economics between working in Biglaw and working for yourself are very different.

Read on after the jump for the rest of the Top Ten Differences Between Biglaw and Boutique….

9. Who’s the Boss?

In consultation with my clients, I get to make all the decisions in my cases; I don’t need to wait for a partner to act on my recommendations. If I want to accommodate a discovery request instead of filing a motion, I can so advise my client without a partner second-guessing me. I also have the prerogative to refuse to work for a potential client for whatever reason.

Although it’s great to have maximum authority, that authority entails responsibility. Any mistakes made in your cases are yours alone. Biglaw associates often underestimate the amount of psychological comfort they get from their built-in Nuremberg defense.

8. Doing the Fun Stuff

Most Biglaw associates know all too well that they will do all the grunt work and the partner will swoop in to handle all the glamorous work, not to mention take all the credit. It can be frustrating to spend hours poring over exhibits and preparing the perfect deposition outline, only to have the actual deposition assigned to a partner who knows nothing about the case.

When you run your own shop, you can do the stuff that I generally consider the “fun stuff,” like taking depositions, arguing motions, first-chairing the trial, etc. And, if you have associate help, THEY can do the document review and prepare the outlines.

7. Flexibility

Solo or small firm attorneys don’t necessarily work fewer hours than their Biglaw counterparts, even in a dead week. But when you are your own boss, you have much more flexibility with your time commitments. That means it’s much easier to actually take your scheduled vacation, or go home early, or even work from home. The greater flexibility of working for yourself translates into innumerable other benefits, too, like setting your own dress code.

6. Building the Book

When you are a Biglaw associate, it can be challenging to generate a book of business. Recognizing this, the Biglaw model assigns work to associates from the rainmakers. When you run your own firm, you have to generate your own business. Like many other aspects of running your own business, this is both liberating and stressful. Generating your own income is very fulfilling on many levels, but so, too, is having the security of always having enough work.

5. The Water Cooler (aka “Did you see Survivor last night?”)

You might think that you don’t really like your Biglaw coworkers, so you won’t miss them if you join a boutique or small firm practice. But there is something to be said for routine contact with coworkers. Once you join a small firm or start a solo practice, you may find yourself a bit more lonely while working, and you might miss the opportunity to gossip about the new file clerk or what happened on the latest hit HBO series. And beyond the obvious quality-of-work-life benefits, studies have shown that informal interaction with coworkers around the water cooler can lead to big gains in productivity.

4. Check You Emails: Templates, Exemplars, RFEs, and RFIs

Biglaw attorneys have the luxury of access to the collective work product of the many other attorneys at the firm. This often includes access to thousands of exemplar pleadings and research memos on virtually every conceivable subject. In my Biglaw experience, it was common for an attorney to send a firm-wide email with a subject reading “RFE,” which meant a “Request for Exemplar,” or “RFI,” which meant a “Request for Information.” I imagine that I saved many hundreds of hours of time I would have had to spend had I not had access to those resources. With 24/7 email-availability policies, I knew that help was always just a “send” button away. And even without email help, I always had access to the firm’s online document library.

For many solo and boutique practice attorneys, losing access to the firm’s collective document library means a less efficient attorney.

3. Cocktail Party Appeal

When I was in law school, I noticed that most of my classmates chose their firm based on what I called its “cocktail party appeal,” or gauging the reaction they received from their classmates when they mentioned their chosen law firm. “I accepted an offer from Cravath” received near-universal acclaim, so that seemed to be a pretty safe career path. We could not for a second explain any real difference between Cravath or Skadden; all we knew was that each firm generated a slightly different reaction from our peers.

The “cocktail party appeal” of running your own firm is very different. On the one hand, some junior attorneys and law students will always think that you have “traded down” or couldn’t hack it in Biglaw. On the other hand, laypersons tend to think more highly of you for being an entrepreneur. If you’re chatting up a 3L in a bar, saying you’re a solo practitioner might not advance your agenda. But to many people in the real world, having your own practice is the very definition of success. Again, different people might weigh this differently, but everyone agrees that the prestige and credibility factors differ a lot from Biglaw to boutique.

2. Rubbing Expert Elbows

Biglaw associates naturally like to criticize the partners for whom they work, but any objective observer would admit that the partners in Biglaw are among the most highly trained, highly experienced, and flat-out smartest attorneys practicing law at its most sophisticated level. A chance to work closely with the top practitioners in any field is an honor, and the experience of working on high profile, headline-making cases is simply irreplaceable.

For all the advantages of running your own firm, I most miss working with so many attorneys recognized as among the best in their field.

1. Face Time: It’s Not Just an App

Law firms are made up of people, and office politics necessarily becomes a factor in any workplace, including law firms. A good example of this is the requirement of face time. We all know the stories, and the tricks, like leaving your lights on or coming back to work after going home to show your face late at night.

I personally tried hard not to let this influence how I worked, but no matter what you have been told, you’re naïve if you think that face time at your firm doesn’t matter. If your firm hosts a firm hike or ski trip, you better believe it behooves you to attend.

Alas, no more! Running my own firm, I can now finally reveal a dark secret: I’m not a fan of skiing. First, I’m not very good at it. Second, I left the Midwest, among other reasons, because I don’t like the snow. My idea of a great firm outing is a concert at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley or wine-tasting in Napa, not freezing my @$$ off while risking my life on a black diamond trail. The freedom to decline to go to events that don’t fit my personality is a liberating fringe benefit of running my own firm.

* * *

So, there you have it. Whether any particular change from Biglaw to boutique is a positive or negative is subject to debate, but I’m also sure there isn’t anyone who can deny it’s not just a change in style. The differences are real and are worth considering for anyone who is considering trading places.


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 [email protected].


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