Biglaw, Boutique Law Firms, Minority Issues, Small Law Firms, Technology

From Biglaw to Boutique: Diversity!

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are well accustomed to the concept of diversity. San Franciscans embrace it. They live among and celebrate people of every race, ethnicity and nationality. They embrace every sexual orientation. And they welcome political persuasions spanning the gamut from socialist to liberal. Ah, life’s infinite diversity.

I’ve mentioned before that when I snorkeled in the Cayman Islands, I was amazed at the vast number of different species of fish. When I go to a favorite deli or café, I’m reluctant to order “the usual,” however much I might enjoy it, because I’ve always believed that variety is good. The concepts of variety and diversity present themselves to us every day.

Diversity is also an important concept for law firms, especially smaller law firms and boutiques. And this is true of “diversity” in a variety of contexts, some of which are not so obvious….

When I think of diversity in the traditional sense, I think of racial and ethnic diversity of attorneys and staff. This type of diversity may be especially helpful for law firms. For one, racial and ethnic diversity serve as a convenient proxy for diversity of experience. And diversity of experience helps a group view problems in different ways and arrive at different possible solutions. In this way, a firm’s collective intelligence is greater than the sum of its individual attorneys.

This is one of the reasons I believe that group practices offer benefits over solo practices and that traditional brick and mortar shops will never be fully displaced by virtual firms. I’m not suggesting that diversity is the be-all, end-all that should override all other factors when making hiring or staffing decisions. I’m not intending to criticize, and I’m not issuing any kind of call to action. My only point is that diversity in a firm makes it smarter, and therefore stronger, by whatever degree. Of course, the smaller the firm, the greater the challenge of benefitting from diversity of experience.

Besides racial and ethnic diversity, I think it also is helpful to have both women and men working on legal issues. This helps to add different perspectives and leads to superior analysis, dispute resolution and problem solving.

Besides diversity of experience, reflecting diversity also can be helpful for firms. Diversity broadens a firm’s reach to clients. I hope I’m not racist to point out that some people may be more inclined to hire those who resemble them or share some of their cultural experiences. Having diverse employees increases your firm’s chance of appealing, however superficially it may seem, to more clients. On a more crass level, diversity is itself marketable and generates its own positive press.

Diversity in very different contexts also can be important for small law firms. For example, it behooves a firm to maintain a variety of clients and matters. Once a firm gains one or two important clients, it can be tempting for the firm to eschew other clients or business development and to become dependent on the important existing clients. But having all your eggs in too few baskets is a recipe for disaster. Some have blamed the dramatic downfall of brand name firms on exactly this problem of over-dependence on too few clients. This idea is not much different than the advice that financial planners give to maintain a diverse portfolio of investments and to diversify your risk.

Similarly, I think that attorneys considering forming their own solo or small firm practice should consider a variety of approaches to business generation, including both direct client solicitation and referrals, as well as active and passive methods. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to believe in, so, even within those categories, it strikes me as prudent to pursue a variety of approaches. For example, I think it is folly to rely exclusively on social media marketing. On the other hand, I think it is just as misguided to reject it outright. If you used to work in Biglaw, referrals from your former firm should be an obvious source of potential business. But you miss a world of opportunity if you decline to look any further.

Financial planners also encourage prudent investors to assume varying levels of risk with their investments. In the same way, there is much to be said for a law firm exploring a variety of fee and billing arrangements. Risk-averse that I am, I knew I would never commit myself to a contingent fee business model. On the other hand, once my firm developed a healthy mix of hourly work, I was happy to consider some higher risk / higher reward engagements. Most of our cases still have traditional, hourly billing arrangements, but we also have a smattering of flat fee agreements, monthly caps with contingent upsides, etc. I don’t know if we have precisely the right mix, but diversification strikes me as the right approach.

***

“Diversity” can be a rather loaded term as it impacts hot-button topics like affirmative action, marriage equality and immigration. But the term can be used in several different ways, and it serves as a useful label for capturing several concepts that are especially important for small firms and boutiques.


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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