Tom Wallerstein

I’ve been known to quip, “I thought I was wrong, once, but I was mistaken.” But I realize that my column here on Above the Law has often been “wrong” in at least one important way: I’ve compared apples to oranges.

For example, I authored a “top ten” list of differences between working in a big firm and working in a boutique. But many of the items focused on differences between employee and owner. I compared working where “you get paid either a salary or an hourly rate” with “running your own shop.” I compared “making all the decisions in my cases” with “waiting for a partner to act on my recommendations.” I compared doing the grunt work with making the important decisions.

That strikes me as comparing apples to oranges because all those comparisons actually contrasted being an employee with being an owner. That fundamental distinction accounts for many of the supposed differences between working in Biglaw and working in a small firm or boutique.

But what about associates who are considering becoming associates at a small firm or boutique? That’s the true apples to apples comparison. If you’re not starting your own business, but will instead remain an associate, what are the real differences when moving “From Biglaw to Boutique”?

In a small firm, the culture and general work environment become even more important. Every Am Law 100 firm boasts about its unique culture, but the truth is that many of the firms are relatively interchangeable. The rapid increase in partner mobility over the last decade means that law firms are becoming less distinguishable from one another with every passing year. Two different firms in San Francisco are likely to be more similar to each other than they are to their affiliate offices in New York.

Associates’ experiences in large firms are more likely to be shaped by the individuals they work with than by their firms’ particular culture. And in that respect, Biglaw probably gives you more options. There are unpleasant coworkers everywhere, but if you dislike your big firm boss or colleagues, you at least have the prospect of working with or for someone else, or moving to another floor, department, office, etc. In a small, closely-knit environment, you likely are stuck.

The dynamics of becoming a partner can vary dramatically depending on the size of the firm. On the one hand, a small firm offers much less competition. On the other hand, the opportunities might be much more limited or nonexistent. All the vagaries, subjectivity, and uncertainty in the partnership track are magnified in a small firm environment.

Finally, no post on Above the Law would be complete without a consideration of prestige. Regardless how similar the practice of law might be in an Am Law firm versus a small regional firm, there is no denying that lawyers will be perceived differently depending on the prestige factor of their firm. For better or worse, that perception can take on a life of its own and become real, influencing things ranging from lateral options to bragging rights on ATL.

Another apples to apples comparison would consider a partner’s point of view. I know several partners here in the Bay Area who have launched their own firms in recent years. Because they already were partial owners in their prior professional lives, their experience helps focus on some of the true differences between big shops and small.

I spoke to one former Biglaw managing partner who started his own firm, and he said that the main advantage he perceived was the freedom and independence to chart his own path and do things the way he wants them done. He gained a lot of satisfaction knowing that he was building his enterprise his way, from the ground up.

On a more practical level, he cited the lack of conflicts that allowed him to more easily develop business, and the ability to be more flexible and cost effective for his current and potential clients.

On the other hand, the partner bemoaned the lack of administrative and other support that he had enjoyed in his Am Law 100 firm. That lack of support is both exhilarating and exhausting, and it can sometimes be difficult to find enough time to get everything done. Depending on your mindset, you might rejoice in your new freedom, or be afraid at the change you made.

There is an obvious difference between being an employee and running your own business; it’s not just a change in style. But that is comparing apples to oranges. Moving “From Biglaw to Boutique” doesn’t mean you necessarily have to start a company.

I’ve come to enjoy running a small business, even if not quite as much as I love being a lawyer. But it’s certainly not for everyone. For this reason, it makes sense for anyone considering the move to compare apples to apples and, for example, to consider the differences when an associate leaves Biglaw to become an associate in a small firm. Even those differences are legion.

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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