Boutique Law Firms

Tom Wallerstein

I was shocked to discover that “[a]ccording to the Lawyer Statistical Report, only 14% of attorneys are employed in large law firms of more than 100 lawyers. The large majority of attorneys (63%) and law firm employees work in small offices of ten attorneys or less.”

I have no idea if those numbers are accurate. But the reason I was shocked is because the report should have said, “ten attorneys or fewer.” “Fewer” is proper when referring to countable items other than time, money or distance. “Less” is proper when referring to things that generally are not counted.

OK, maybe “shocked” is too strong a word, but I do cringe every time I’m in the grocery store confronting the grammatically incorrect express lane of “10 items or less” instead of the proper “ten items or fewer.” Conversely, I always enjoy reading ATL’s “Grammer Pole of the Weak” column that explores some technical grammar debate. I usually have an opinion no matter how arcane the question.

I can trace my own fascination with words to the first time I read George Orwell’s novel 1984 [affiliate link]. Before it became an Apple commercial, the book was a moving exploration of the vast power of language and the relationship between words and ideas. The hero of the novel was employed to edit books and newspapers and remove words that had been banned. The political and social role of “Newspeak,” the state-imposed language, was a central theme.

My fascination with words continued in college where I studied speech. With oration, at its best, your words could glow with the gold of sunshine. At its worst, your tongue is twisted with words half spoken. But I majored in philosophy, and especially the philosophy of language. Law, with its supposed emphasis on logic, language and speech, seemed a natural fit for me.

After all, as lawyers, words are our stock and trade. What is an argument but a collection of ideas, expressed in words, intended to persuade?

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Matthew Powers: 'pimp hands' don't knot neckties.

The renowned IP litigator Matthew Powers, founding partner of Tensegrity Law Group, has a nickname here at Above the Law. We like to call him Matt “Pimp Hand” Powers. Back in 2008, a paralegal at Weil Gotshal alleged in a lawsuit that Powers, former cochair of litigation at Weil, ruled over his domain by alternating between use of the “pimp hand” and the “mojo hand.” The “pimp hand” was used to intimidate and coerce, while the “mojo hand” was used to stroke and cajole.

Over the years, numerous litigants have felt the sting of Powers’s pimp hand. He has been described, quite accurately, as “one of the most feared, respected, and successful patent litigators in the country.” As noted on his website bio, Matt Powers “is known for taking tough cases to trial and winning them,” on behalf of leading technology companies like Apple, Oracle, Microsoft, and Intel.

But now the tables have turned. Powers recently found himself on the receiving end of a benchslap — from a lowly administrative law judge, ick….

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Tom Wallerstein

The attrition rate in Biglaw is legendary. Since the recession hit, associates are less likely to voluntarily abandon a six-figure job and more often believe that you don’t get up and go until they throw you out the door. On the other hand, since the recession hit, associates are less likely to have any choice in the matter should their firm feel the need to reduce headcount. But especially during the boom years when I began practicing, associates frequently left their firm gigs to do all manner of things, from going in-house, to starting a private practice, to hiking across the country, or moving to Nepal.

I worked in large and medium-sized firms for nearly a decade, and during my tenure, I saw an awful lot of associates come and go. Rarely if ever was I surprised to hear the news. In fact, I was usually surprised that others were surprised. In my experience, there are certain tell-tale signs that an associate is crafting a farewell email….

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I see no problems here.

Apparently I’m the crazy one here. None of my co-editors think it’s that cool or surprising that a law firm would take a company trip to the shooting range. Maybe it’s because I live in the Bay Area, and the only guns near me are the ones with which gangsters shoot each other.

It’s not like we’ve never mentioned attorneys who know their way around firearms before. We’ve covered the judge who reported pulled his piece in court, and the Supreme Court justices who went hunting together. But this is the first instance we’ve seen of any sort of institutional embrace of fun times with weapons.

Regardless, this New York-based boutique firm is taking the coolest field trip ever. And they aren’t just going to any shooting range, or shooting wimpy little .22’s…

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It’s been a while since we’ve had a good New York to 190 post. As we’ve discussed before, associate salaries at New York law firms are long overdue for a raise. Starting salaries have stagnated in New York.

What’s worse, total associate compensation has gone down this year from last year, thanks to Cravath’s low bonus and the absence of spring bonuses. The buying power of a New York associate is pathetic.

But one new firm in New York seems poised to change that. The firm isn’t nearly as big as our salary market leaders, but the firm is leaving the stagnated Cravath salary scale in the dust…

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Tom Wallerstein

I’ve known some lawyers to proudly proclaim that in litigation, they leave no stone unturned. They boast that they will pursue every defense, review every document, and raise every argument. In doing so, presumably, they assure victory. They strive to win at any cost.

This approach makes sense when a well-funded client faces bet-the-company litigation. In that case, of course, a lawyer should pursue every possible path to victory, even if a particular path seems like a long shot. It may cost a lot to win, but even more to lose. In these cases, the economic interest of the attorney and the client are aligned. If the amount at stake warrants it, the lawyer can work the case to the max, and the client is happy to pay for it.

But smaller firms handling smaller matters know that many times, winning in litigation is relative to the amount at stake and the fees incurred. Every client is initially delighted to receive a favorable verdict at trial. But when the heat cools down, and only the bill remains, even the winning client may resent his lawyer when he reflects on the price he paid for his “victory”….

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I have spent many hours talking to others about the future of the legal profession. My Biglaw friends (at least the one who remains) proclaim that the future of legal practice is not that different from the past — by which she means that Biglaw is the future. The attorneys I meet from small law firms, in contrast, predict that Biglaw is out and small firms will prevail. My unemployed lawyer friends believe that they, along with a bunch of other unemployed lawyers, will toil away as hourly document review attorneys in the future. I believe that the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Oh, sorry, that is Whitney. RIP.

Corporate Counsel recently published an article, Bye Bye Big Firm, that predicts that while small law firms will not overtake Biglaw, they will be a major part of the future of legal practice. The article offers several reasons for predicting this future trend:

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Tom Wallerstein

If you’re trying to grow a solo or small firm practice, you generally shouldn’t work for free unless you have a deliberate business development objective in mind. Conversely, if you have a client willing to pay, you generally should prefer to scale up your headcount instead of turning down work due to lack of bandwidth.

Does this mean you should never turn down a client who is willing and able to pay your fees?

No. There are lots of reasons it might make sense to turn down a paying client….

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Tom Wallerstein

There comes a time in all associates’ careers when they stop and do the math. They think about their salary, bonus, and benefits. They think about their billable hours. They multiply their billable hours by their billable rate and suddenly they think, hey, WAITAMINUTE. My firm makes three four five times what it pays me!

Like any other salaried employee, the more hours an associate works, the less they make per hour, bonuses notwithstanding. They might not mind so much if they’re also bucking for promotion, i.e., up for partner. Regardless, at some point, every associate thinks, “if only I were paid as much per hour as I bill per hour . . . .”

That moment for me was the epiphany that ultimately led to helping form my own firm. But since that time, I’ve also been able to see the other side of the fence, so to speak. There are a lot of reasons — some obvious, and some less so — why the math isn’t quite as simple as it seems….

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* Obamacare’s individual mandate may be in jeopardy, and it’s all because of that stupid broccoli debate. No, Scalia, as delicious as it is, not everyone would have to buy broccoli. [New York Times]

* Biglaw firms aren’t going away, but thanks to the recent onslaught of partner defections to small law firms, their high hourly rates might soon be going the way of the dodo. [Corporate Counsel]

* The “good” news: Northwestern Law will be limiting its tuition hike to the rate of inflation. The bad news: next year, it will cost $53,168 to attend. I officially don’t want to live on this planet anymore. [National Law Journal]

* A Littler Mendelson partner is recovering from a stabbing that occurred during a home invasion. On the bright side, at least he’s not a partner at Dewey — that’s a fate worse than being stabbed these days. [Am Law Daily]

* Law school applicants are dropping like flies, but some law schools were able to attract record numbers of students. UVA Law must have some real expertise in recruiting collar poppers. [The Short List / U.S. News]

* “I have a suggestion for you; next time, keep your [expletive] legs closed.” O Canada, that’s the basis of one crazy class action suit, eh? Dudley Do-Right would never treat a female Mountie like that. [Globe and Mail]

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