Biglaw, Boutique Law Firms, Partner Issues, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Are Associates at Small Law Firms Screwed?

I have spent many hours talking to others about the future of the legal profession. My Biglaw friends (at least the one who remains) proclaim that the future of legal practice is not that different from the past — by which she means that Biglaw is the future. The attorneys I meet from small law firms, in contrast, predict that Biglaw is out and small firms will prevail. My unemployed lawyer friends believe that they, along with a bunch of other unemployed lawyers, will toil away as hourly document review attorneys in the future. I believe that the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Oh, sorry, that is Whitney. RIP.

Corporate Counsel recently published an article, Bye Bye Big Firm, that predicts that while small law firms will not overtake Biglaw, they will be a major part of the future of legal practice. The article offers several reasons for predicting this future trend:

(1) small firms often have lower rates;
(2) small firms have better lawyers (at least according to small-firm lawyer Kathryn Ellsworth, who cofounded Grais & Ellsworth in 2007);
(3) clients are able to rely on several small firms that specialize in different areas to handle all of their legal needs (filling in the gaps with legal support businesses);
(4) small firms face fewer problems with conflicts of interest; and
(5) small firms offer more personalized service.

The article also explains why lawyers desire to move from Biglaw to small firms: because big partners at Biglaw want to go off on their own. Indeed, Beth Anisman — formerly a lawyer at Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. and Barclays Capital Inc., and now the owner of B&Co Consulting — predicts an idyllic future for small firms formed by Biglaw spin-offs. “We can create a small ecosystem of excellent small firms…. In a way, it works the same way as a big firm: Instead of referring a client to your partner down the hall, you’re referring a client to another small firm that handles what they want.”

The future sounds bright for partners at small firms, but what about small-firm associates? Things might not be so good.

Why? The three main reasons cited for the future small-firm takeover all favor small-firm partners over small-firm associates.

Reason 1: Small firms offer lower billing rates.

The article discusses how clients often pay the same for Biglaw associate document reviews as they do for small-firm partner brief writing. There is no reference to small-firm associates, who, while even cheaper than both, are likely not as desirable as a partner. This raises the question: why pay for an associate when a client can get a partner to handle their matter? Wouldn’t it be better to have these associate tasks handled by the legal support services referenced in the article?

Reason 2: Clients can use an array of specialized small firms to handle their legal needs.

According to the article, these specialists are former Biglaw partners like Peter Chaffetz, founder of Chaffetz Lindsey. But what about lawyers who don’t have that type of experience?

Wendy Horn, founder of Liftoff Marketing and former chief marketing officer at McDermott, Will & Emery, explained the rise of specialists as follows: “I analogize law firms to dog groomers. If I were choosing a dog groomer, I would choose one that specializes only in my breed.” Again, where does this leave associates? They are often not specialized dog groomers.

Reason 3: Small firms offer a place for Biglaw partners to continue representing their clients in the face of growing conflicts issues.

The article predicts that economic pressures and conflict issues will force more and more partners out of Biglaw and in to small firms. This sounds like a nice exit strategy for the former partners, but again, what about small-firm associates?

So what is the future going to be like for small-firm associates? Should young lawyers, instead of moving to small firms early in their careers, stick around Biglaw, make partner, and then go small? If so, that sounds problematic, since making partner at a large law firm is exceedingly (and increasingly) difficult. Are small firm associates destined to do the undesirable work left over after clients get their money’s worth out of the small-firm partners? That sounds painful. Will small-firm associates experience the same benefits as small-firm partners given the future trend favoring small-firm use by larger clients? That sounds better.

The experts predicting future trends focus solely on partner opportunities, without discussing the outlook for associates. I want to hear your predictions. Email me.

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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