Biglaw, Boutique Law Firms, Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners

From Biglaw to Boutique: Mother of Invention

Tom Wallerstein

Some attorneys think they are unable to transition from Biglaw to opening a solo or small firm boutique because they lack the ability to generate business. They might think, “If I can’t generate business at my current firm, with all of its vast resources, goodwill, and prestige behind me, then how could I ever hope to generate business on my own?”

This kind of negative thinking is pernicious, and based on a number of fallacies….

In the Biglaw environment, most associates are too busy working to have much time or energy for business development efforts. The onerous billable hour requirements of Biglaw are well-known. Whether hoping to stave off layoffs, or gunning for bonuses, associates have precious little remaining time for eating or sleeping, much less for focusing on business development.

Associates who participate in pitches can gain valuable experience in learning what clients care about, and what is and is not effective, but that experience only goes so far in furthering the associate’s own business development efforts.

Nor is it helpful that associates learn early on in their careers that generating business is the supposed key to making partner. Increasingly, making partner is not the goal of associates entering Biglaw anyway. Even for those who do aspire to partnership, it is such a long-term goal that it inevitably takes a back seat to more pressing short-term deadlines. It’s very difficult for associates to see the near-term value of business development efforts and, consequently, those skills (and the relationships which are the key to business development) are never developed.

Many associates believe they lack the inherent genetic qualities that are necessary to be a rainmaker. An associate will say she won’t ever be good at business development because she is “too shy,” or because she is not a “people person.” That’s an understandable concern, but wholly unwarranted. Generating business is a skill that can be learned, and the techniques can be successfully employed by all personality types.

In any event, necessity is the mother of invention. It is truly amazing how quickly business development skills can be learned when feeding your family depends on it. When you go out on your own or form your own firm, you need to pay rent, pay your associates and staff, pay your rent or mortgage, etc. All these complications seem to leave no choice, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve met quite a few Biglaw refugees who never developed much business to speak of until they were forced to do so after opening their own shops.

Sometimes it is not until you launch your own practice that you discover that there really is no magic to business development and that anyone can be successful if they invest the time (provided, of course, that they offer a service for which clients are willing to pay).

Once you open your own firm or solo practice, you will be amazed at how quickly you can overcome your natural shyness or disinclination to solicit business. Once your livelihood depends on your ability to generate work for yourself, even the purest of romantics compromise.

Your perspective about everything changes when you are working for yourself. When you are an associate in a Biglaw firm, business development is a scary prospect, a chore with only long term benefits, no immediate payoff, and involving monumental opportunity costs (of completing urgent billable work).

With your own solo or small firm, the entire risk/benefit analysis flips on its head. Suddenly, the benefit to business development is much more immediate and the payoff (a successful career; food on the table) is monumental.

With this change in perspective, you suddenly find time you didn’t know you had. When you are billing 2,400 hours or more per year in Biglaw, having lunch with a colleague at another firm is often a luxury you cannot afford. When you are working for yourself, having those lunches can become a critical part of your overall business plan.

When you are working on your own, you also generally will be billing far fewer hours than 2,400 per year. If that is not the case, then presumably you are not having any problems with generating business.

In a solo or small firm practice, you also have the freedom to take on much smaller matters. That alone will dramatically increase your prospect of developing business.

Essentially, when you are a Biglaw associate, your incentives are such that you often have no pressing reason to focus on business development. Not surprisingly, you fail to develop the skills and relationships you need because you have no overriding incentive to do so.

Once your very livelihood depends on generating work, however, the higher priority itself tends to make you more successful.

If you are working in Biglaw, and fear that you won’t be able to succeed on your own because you won’t be able to generate business, you should remember two things: First, you’re right, your new venture will fail if you don’t generate the business to sustain it. But remember, also, that once you go out on your own, you are both able and likely to quickly develop skills you need to succeed. Necessity is the mother of invention.

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

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