Tom Wallerstein

Posts by Tom Wallerstein

Tom Wallerstein

A friend of mine — now a successful partner — told me a story about when he was a junior associate at a well-known Biglaw firm. Phil used to work for a superstar partner who was incredibly well respected by his colleagues and clients, but somewhat feared by junior associates. Phil told me about the time when he had to confess to the partner that he had inadvertently produced to their adversary a small number of documents that had been tagged as “non-responsive”; i.e., documents that did not need to be produced because the adversary had not requested them.

Phil expected yelling and screaming, profanity, maybe a fist pounding on the table. But instead, the partner was silent. His face showed disappointment, not anger. He slowly shook his head side to side several times, muttering to himself, seemingly unable to comprehend why fate should be so cruel as to condemn him to work with such incompetents. He rubbed at his face and eyes, first with one hand, and then the other, as if he hoped to awaken himself from a stubborn bad dream.

After several moments, he sighed loudly, and looked at Phil with seeming pity. He sighed again, to make sure my friend fully comprehended the weight of despair that he was bearing, and then once more, for good measure. Finally, the partner said simply, “We’ll have to call the carrier.”

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Tom Wallerstein

Is law school worth the tuition? Should I take out loans to go to a highly-ranked school, or accept a scholarship to a lower-ranked school? These are the burning questions that this website loves to pose.

I have opinions on these subjects like everyone else, but honestly, what do I know? The legal market was very different when I went to law school.

I attended The University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1996 through 1999.  I loved my classes, my professors and my friends. Sure, law school was stressful, but, as I frequently quipped, it was better than work.

I have distinct memories of on-campus recruiting. OCR seemed stressful at the time, but it can hardly be compared to the stress that students now face In This Economy. In the late 1990s, attending a T-14 school virtually guaranteed you a Biglaw job, if that’s what you wanted.

And we did. All but a handful of my classmates aspired to work in Biglaw, at least to start our careers….

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Tom Wallerstein

When lawyers form a new firm, one of their first, most important projects is usually designing their website. This makes sense because the website is often the first thing that a prospective client or referral source will see. Its importance cannot be overstated.

The process of designing a website (or printed marketing material) is considerably different for a new enterprise than it is for an established one. For an established firm, the process involves trying to portray to the outside world the essence of what the firm is and emphasize what distinguishes it from its competition.

For a new firm, however, the process is very different because you must first conceptualize what you want to be before you decide how you want to present yourself to the outside world. In this way, the website of a new firm is more aspirational than it is descriptive. For example, when a new firm proclaims that it handles practice areas A, B, and C, it often means that it intends to handle those practice areas.

This dynamic plays itself out in virtually everything a new business does. When it chooses a logo, or color scheme, or even its name, it engages in a process of self-conceptualization, imagining what it wants to be. I think that’s one reason why new businesses spend so much time, and so enjoy, focusing on relatively simple things like deciding on a logo. It’s fun to imagine your potential….

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Tom Wallerstein

Blogging is not something I expected to make part of my weekly routine as a litigator. Yet here I am, writing a post every week that relates in some way to my own experience of having moved “from Biglaw to boutique.” This post marks my 40th post on Above the Law, and for several reasons, I remain grateful and look forward to the opportunity to write a post every week, dead weeks included.

If your goal is to build credibility regarding your expertise in a certain area, then blogging — or tweeting, for that matter — about that topic is a helpful start. Blogging about a certain topic is in some ways the online equivalent of presenting a seminar or CLE course.

Generally, the benefit of presenting a seminar is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, if you give a seminar, each attendee is a prospective client. But more than that, you also help build a reputation as someone knowledgeable about your topic.

Legal blogging works the same way. If you consistently blog about a certain topic, then you have a good platform by which you can establish credibility as an expert in the field. If you tweet and re-tweet about your topic, then someone searching Twitter is more likely to come across your name and assume you have expertise in the area. I know from experience that valuable contacts and potential clients actually do consult Twitter for lawyers to hire….

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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”?

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Tom Wallerstein

Many attorneys who leave Biglaw for smaller or solo practices find themselves considering contingent fee cases, either by necessity or design. “By necessity,” because a practice may not have many paying clients when it first forms. “By design,” because an attorney working for a contingent fee has the prospect of hitting a huge payday and making many times what an attorney who bills by the hour can make.

The challenge of business development takes on a whole new meaning when applied to contingent fee lawyers. To some extent, a contingent fee attorney has the opposite problem of an attorney billing by the hour. There is no shortage of clients who want a lawyer they need pay only if they win. Thus, the contingent fee attorney always has too many potential clients whereas the hourly attorney always has too few.

Because attorneys can find themselves inundated with clients offering a contingent fee, evaluating which cases to take, and which to turn down, can be challenging. Essentially, taking a case on contingency is an investment of your time, energy, and financial resources. You need to carefully assess whether the investment is a good one….

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Tom Wallerstein

Associates in both Biglaw and small should give some thought as to who is their most important client. Some might think that their most important client is their biggest or most prestigious one, or the one whose matter has the most at stake. This week at Morrison & Foerster and Quinn Emanuel, yearning associates might name Apple and Samsung, respectively.

Other associates might take a longer view, and answer that their most important client is the one with the greatest potential to offer them future business.

Still others might select the client for whom the associate has the most responsibility. For example, if you are one of three or four associates on several matters, but the primary or sole associate on another, you may view that latter client as your most important.

All these associates would be making a mistake by not understanding who is truly their most important client….

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Tom Wallerstein

I’ve heard that a hungry dog hunts best. I don’t know if that’s actually true because my pugs were always hungry, and yet they could not have caught a three-legged turtle. But the saying makes sense, and I do know that staying hungry — but not desperate — is an important concept for law firms.

One way a young firm should stay hungry is to always search for new business. There are good reasons that I constantly harp on the importance of business development. Even if you are fortunate enough to be busy, you never know when your current workload may dry up. This is particularly true in litigation because any case can always settle or otherwise resolve unexpectedly. No matter how busy you are, you should constantly seek out new work and new clients.

But seeking out new work comes at a potential cost to your current cases and clients. You can’t be so desperate to grow that you spend so much time on business development that you ignore your current clients or let your current caseload suffer. Some lawyers take a churn and burn approach, trying to maximize their short-term return from every engagement, with no concern for the longer-term client relationship. To form a practice that’s built to last, you need to work hard to maintain those relationships, and that means you can’t neglect your current clients while constantly fishing for newer ones….

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Tom Wallerstein

For attorneys starting their own firms, one of the more difficult things to learn is how much time to spend on a prospective client. Attorneys take various approaches. Some attorneys say, reasonably enough, I don’t work for free, and will do little more than quote their rates. Attorneys who employ mass marketing will offer a “free consultation,” but that generally amounts to little more than a way to encourage unsophisticated clients to call them as opposed to someone else.

If your business model depends on high volume of a particular type of case, it probably doesn’t make sense to devote too much effort to soliciting any one particular client. But if you are pursuing fewer, higher-stakes or more complex matters, then you very well could struggle with how to strike the proper balance….

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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….

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