Billable Hours, Boutique Law Firms, Money, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Crisis of Faith

The other day, I was at dinner with some Biglaw friends. While I prefer to associate only with my small-firm kin, I needed someone to pick up the check. And, I thought I could do some missionary work and convert my friends in to small-firm lawyers (so I could mine them for story ideas, obviously).

Something unexpected happened during dinner. One of my friends asked me why I believe small-firm life is so different from Biglaw. I went through my standard list of reasons: quality of life, money, autonomy, mentoring, etc. I even cited Tom Wallerstein’s Top Ten.

That was where things took an unexpected turn: my friend did not buy it. Indeed, by the end of our dinner he had me questioning my beliefs. Does size matter, I thought? Needless to say, as a woman who has devoted her “career” to writing about small-firm life, this experience shook me to my core.

Let’s see if you can help me make sense of that night….

What follows are the reasons I gave to my Biglaw friend about why small-firm life is different — and his responses.

(1) Small-firm lawyers work fewer hours.

I had heard many stories from small-firm attorneys discussing how they were able to go home at five and enjoy work-free (and email free) weekends. I knew, however, that there were many other small-firm attorneys (myself included) who worked the same (or more) than we did at Biglaw. With fewer bodies to do the work, someone had to stay at the office late. My friend called my bluff.

(2) Small-firm attorneys make less money.

I do not know why I thought that was a selling point, but it seemed like a solid difference. However, as my friend pointed out (and I knew), there are some small-firm attorneys who make the same or more than they did at Biglaw. He told me about a friend who worked for a plaintiffs’ firm and was making bank. Strike 2.

(3) Small-firm attorneys have closer relationships with partners and key decision-makers.

Me: “At a small firm, you know the partners in charge of determining whether to make you partner. It does not come from a committee of lawyers in a different state that you have never met.” Him: “I work in a small group and I know the partners who will be making that determination.” Me: “Ugh.”

(4) Small-firm attorneys get to do more substantive work earlier on.

While I admitted that some small-firm attorneys had to take on a heavy workload, that at least meant that those attorneys were able to do meaningful work, not just document review. Not surprisingly, he pointed to the attorneys who (a) are more aggressive and seek out smaller cases or (b) work in smaller groups.

Desperate for something to stick, I relied on my secret weapon: the holiday party. He, however, had a sit-down dinner for his group at one of the nicest hotels in San Francisco, followed by a live band. That was when it struck me: are small-law firms no different than satellite offices of, or small practices groups within, Biglaw? I could not think of a solid distinction to prove to my friend that Size Matters. I even Tebowed and asked for guidance from upstairs. Nothing. Has my life been a lie? Is my name even Valerie Katz?

I need your help to resolve my crisis of faith. What do you think distinguishes small law firms from small offices or small groups within Biglaw? And, why should any of us care? Email me your thoughts (or prayers).

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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