Boutique Law Firms

Germany has won the World Cup. The final game was a low-scoring 1-0, but nonetheless a thrilling hair-puller of missed opportunities on both sides. The single goal, in minute 113, was an elegant, technically perfect two-touch volley — all the more impressive because it was delivered by a 22-year-old substitute who did not join the game until the second half.

The game was also a contrast of different playing styles. Argentina built its offence around a star striker, Lionel Messi, who was expected to execute a well-timed stroke of veritable futbol magic that would hopefully usher his country to its third World Cup victory. Backing him was a deep-sitting defense that repeatedly stifled German goal-scoring attempts, but was nevertheless not expected to score absent some Messi magic. By contrast, Germany lacked a superstar of the world-renown of Messi. Instead, its playing style prioritized short, deft, technical passing among the team as a whole. The victorious Germans carefully worked the ball through various mid-field channels until, eventually, it reached the back of the opponent’s net.

I am not an avid soccer fan, but like many Americans, I tune into the World Cup every four years. Who was I rooting for?

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Patent litigators travel frequently. I addressed the topic back in early March. Travel can be tiring, or fun, or a combination of the two. And travel episodes are sometimes good for a laugh afterwards. Sometimes, you can even learn a business lesson or two from a travel experience. On a recent trip, I was reminded that trying to save some money can be costly in other ways. And while it is nice to be running a firm that is a cheaper alternative to Biglaw, there is no excuse for letting that price differential compromise the quality of our services. We don’t, and never will, but reminders of that principle do not hurt either.

A few months ago, Zach and I needed to make a trip to meet with a client and separately deal with an issue in one of our cases. When I was in Biglaw, both of the firms I worked for had in-house travel agents, and because of the nature of my practice, I got to know the actual agents pretty well. If I had a business trip, all it took was an email or phone call, and everything would be arranged based on my travel profile and preferences. The occasional “can you get me an earlier flight” or “flight cancelled, get me home” situation was often handled seamlessly as well. And while I was never in the “client is paying for it, so it’s first class for me” camp, I also never hesitated while at Biglaw to incur additional travel cost when there was a compelling business reason for it.

So if it cost a bit more to take a flight at a certain time of day, so be it — especially if flying at those times would make me more productive, i.e., capable of generating billable hours. Or if an upgrade that would allow me to get some much-needed rest was available for a moderate cost, I would take it. But I could not stomach employing some well-worn Biglaw travel tricks, such as always booking refundable full-fare tickets in coach to pretty much guarantee an upgrade. As the years went by, of course, increased client focus on expenses cut out some of the marginally abusive practices. It is hard to worry about securing an upgrade — when you are trying to get the client to pay for the trip in the first place.

Things are different now that I have my own boutique firm….

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On Monday, we noted the surprising news of a young partner leaving Wachtell Lipton to start his own boutique firm. Given the rarity of partner departures from the super-lucrative Wachtell, my colleague Staci Zaretsky described the news as “basically like seeing a unicorn.”

Why did Jeremy Goldstein, a 40-year-old partner in the firm’s executive-compensation practice, leave WLRK? The American Lawyer piece about Goldstein’s move painted a happy picture of a lawyer striking out on his own to be more entrepreneurial and to run his own business.

But we wonder if there’s more to this story than meets the eye….

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Biglaw associates are used to the “black hole” effect when it comes to their assignments. Sure the work is important and valuable, but because of the disconnect between a typical Biglaw attorney and an actual client, it can feel like any given assignment is destined for a “black hole,” rather than serving as a building block for solving a client’s problem. The further removed the lawyer is from the client, the more pronounced the effect. It can be a morale drainer, especially if it looks like the lawyer will never get the chance to work directly with a client on a matter of significance.

Working at a boutique or smaller firm, where there is more direct client contact by necessity, presents a different challenge to a lawyer’s motivation than the “black hole” effect. Because at a smaller firm, or even for partners in Biglaw firm lucky enough to make the adjustment from service partner to a true “counselor,” the lawyer in close contact with a client must confront the inherent limits in the attorney-client relationship. Yes, it can be much more rewarding to have a practice where you feel like you are partnering with your client to get things done. But it becomes all the more frustrating when you give advice, even good advice, that goes unheeded by that same client….

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* “They aren’t required to hear it, but this is the major social issue of the day.” The Supreme Court will likely hear a gay marriage case soon, and it’ll obviously be a vehement 5-4 opinion. [NBC News]

* But is SCOTUS really so bitterly divided now? Here’s a fun fact: The justices agreed unanimously in 66 percent of this term’s cases, and the last time that happened was in 1940. [New York Times]

* A partner has left the luxuries of earning up to $4.8 million per year at Wachtell Lipton to start his own executive compensation boutique, which we understand is basically like seeing a unicorn. [Am Law Daily]

* The post-merger world at Squire Patton Boggs is similar to the pre-merger world in that partners are still being churned in and out of the firm every other day. Check out the latest ins and outs. [WSJ Law Blog]

* The Fourth of July is coming up, and you know you want to light up some fireworks. Sure, it’s illegal to sell them in your state, but here’s where you can travel to go to buy some to celebrate freedom. [Yahoo!]

Jonathan Birenbaum

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Jonathan Birenbaum is a Director in our New York office and focuses his practices on lateral partner, group and associate placements and client services in the New York area and Canada. Prior to joining Lateral Link, Jon, was a legal recruiter with a New York City boutique legal recruiting company where he placed associates and partners in a variety of practice areas with AmLaw, regional and boutique law firms in New York, California, New Mexico and in Toronto. Prior to his career in legal recruiting, Jon was a litigator with the City of New York, the New York State Attorney General’s Office and in private practice as a healthcare litigator with two New York City firms. Jon holds a J.D. from St. John’s University School of Law in New York and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I started out as a legal recruiter in 2007. After success with a series of lateral associate placements, the recession hit and associate hiring slowed significantly. The owner of my recruiting firm encouraged us to start cultivating a partner portfolio to broaden the scope of our work. Since then, I have facilitated numerous lateral partner placements with regional, Am Law 200, and boutique law firms. I have come to understand that the recruiting process can differ greatly with the size of the law firm. Partner candidates and their recruiters must take these differences as well as the candidate’s scheduling and timing needs into account when devising the best search strategy for that individual.

The first partner I recruited was an undercompensated yet well-respected defense litigator. I introduced him to an Am Law 200 firm as well as to a regional firm based in Pennsylvania. My candidate appealed to both firms because of his national reputation, the key client he represented (a major North American transportation client), and his history of strong billables and collections. Both firms immediately expressed an interest in meeting with him….

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It has been three months since I re-entered the race so I thought now would be a good time to give a progress report. During this time, I figured out what I wanted to do, got back in touch with my career development office to find leads and even made a few contacts at a conference. I also reached out to recruiters, law firms and the legal departments of mid-size and large companies.

The results were encouraging. I met many supportive people who introduced me to others, provided useful advice and inside job information. I am beginning to think that the legal community is not as gloomy and cutthroat as I was led to believe.

After the jump, I will share how many interviews I received and the job offers I am currently considering.

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The current discussion regarding the decision by Dentons not to report its average profits per partner (“PPP”) to the American Lawyer is interesting. While I was at Greenberg Traurig, then-CEO Cesar Alvarez used to have a pithy statement on the whole PPP issue, along the lines of: The only thing partners really care about is “profits per me.” There is a lot of wisdom in that statement. In my experience it is true for existing Biglaw partners, potential laterals, and those (fool?) hardy associates aspiring to partnership.

At the same time, the popularity of the American Lawyer’s various charts and rankings can’t be denied. And PPP is one of the catchier columns on those charts. It is used as a proxy for determining everything from firm prestige, to strength of client relationships, to how well a firm is managed.

Savvy associates can and do use it to determine associate quality of life at a particular firm. Your firm has a blazing PPP and no big contingency windfalls feeding the flames? Good chance you are looking at a never-ending flow of “interesting work,” coupled with the partnership prospects of a diminutive drone buzzing around hoping to get noticed by the queen bee. In contrast, you might enjoy a better lifestyle if employed as associate #614 by a Biglaw 2.0 monolith, but you also run the distinct risk of making partner only to realize that the financial gulf between you and the “real” partners is a broad one….

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Over the last few weeks, I have been researching law firms and businesses with in-house legal departments. I checked each firm to see if they hired anyone from my alma mater or a comparably ranked school. I also checked the firms’ rankings both in certain specialties and their overall profitability.

Then I tried something more difficult – finding employee turnover rates and overall employee satisfaction. This information is important to me but is pretty much impossible to get without deeper digging and contacting people. The career counselor I talked to gave me some names of people who may be able to get more detailed information. If there was one thing I learned in law school, it was to find the negative information yourself because you should never trust the numbers on a company’s sales presentations and recruiting materials.

After the jump is a small sample of the prospective firms I researched, listed in no particular order.

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Since Lat tweeted this past weekend about my UpCounsel profile, I thought I would share some thoughts about my experience with the service to date. First off, compared to leaving a Biglaw partnership to open a new firm, trying out a new legal platform was easy. I first heard about UpCounsel from a former in-house client who had struck out on his own. He happens to now be back in-house, but at the time we discussed UpCounsel, he was very enthusiastic about his experience using the site. Since I happen to like trying out new things, signing up once I left Biglaw was an easy decision.

Notice how I did not join UpCounsel while a Biglaw partner. Such things are simply not done. For all of Biglaw’s talk about encouraging partners to be “entrepreneurial” or to “try new marketing ideas,” there is a lot of resistance to using “new ways” to reach potential new clients. Couple that inertia with a general distaste towards marketing individual lawyers at the expense of “firm branding” (aside from a select group of key current rainmakers), and platforms like UpCounsel face a Tough Mudder-level set of obstacles to overcome if they want to break into the Biglaw firm marketing rotation. But I don’t think UpCounsel and their “evolution of legal services”-oriented kin want to….

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