A correspondent recently posed this question: I’m a litigation partner at a big firm. If I go solo, will my corporate clients continue to use me for their smaller matters?
I’ll use this column to do two things. First, I’ll offer the customary answer to all legal questions: It depends.
Second, I’ll ask my in-house readers at large corporations to let me know (either by posting in the comments or sending an e-mail to the link in the shirttail below) whether their corporations use sole practitioners.
Will big corporate clients follow an individual lawyer who jumps ship and goes solo?
It depends . . .
It depends on several things.
First: What does the client think of you, in particular, as opposed to your big firm in general? If the client thinks that you personally are a great lawyer, then the client will be tempted to stick with you. But if the client believes that the firm is great, but you’re just a mediocre member of the team, you’re toast.
Second: Does the client have work available to give you? Many corporate clients have bundled up and shopped out, for multi-year flat-fee deals, much of their routine litigation work. (That’s a trend that we’ll see happen increasingly in the future.) If my correspondent’s clients use his firm for big-ticket items, but the clients have already retained counsel for their run-of-the-mill cases for years to come, then my correspondent is hoping to land business that is simply not available.
Third: Do you specialize in a niche field of litigation? If you have a truly specialized skill set — handling exclusively, say, litigation under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act — then your clients might stick with you because you face relatively little competition. But if you’re just a general commercial litigator, you may find yourself to be less sticky.
Fourth: My general sense is that large corporations — fairly or not — hold a slight bias against solo lawyers. I’ll guess (but I certainly don’t know) that the concern is that solo practitioners won’t have the time needed to handle the client’s work.
I don’t mean this in the usual way, which would involve litigation heating up and the solo lawyer lacking resources to continue the fight. I know from my personal experience at a big firm that we sometimes staffed cases with two lawyers — a partner and me, back when God was young; an associate and me, since the Paleolithic Era. When those smallish matters heated up, we typically did not increase our staffing; rather, the two of us worked like dogs to do whatever was needed to handle the case.
But we did have one escape valve that solos lack: If we were asked to undertake new matters at a time when we were swamped, we could easily decline those new matters. We could propose that one of our other colleagues handle the new work, and we thus kept the client happy and didn’t have to lose the new business. Corporations may fear that solo practitioners lack this escape valve for turning down new business and so may become overwhelmed by work.
I’m not saying that’s a fair bias; I really don’t know. But my sense is that the bias exists, and it may hurt solo practices. So there’s my appeal for help to in-house lawyers at large corporations: Do you use solo practitioners? If not, what’s your concern? Is it the one that I’ve just speculated about, or is it something else?
I suspect I don’t have to ask for help from elsewhere on the web. I’m confident that Carolyn Elefant — host of My Shingle and articulate voice for the solo bar — will let us know the view of those on the other side of this equation. And, as always, I’m all eyes.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at email@example.com.