Boutique Law Firms

The social dynamics within Biglaw firms can mirror those found in pre-colonial Puritan societies. Long working hours in harsh competitive conditions, hierarchical command structures, and a recognition that the group is only as strong as its weakest member. Common features of both your local Biglaw firm and Plymouth, Massachusetts, circa 1650.

Smallpox may no longer be the threat it was to the pilgrims, but Biglaw associates (and increasingly partners) are susceptible to career killers just as deadly. Reputation is everything in Biglaw, and decisions about someone’s suitability to remain employed in Biglaw are often made on the basis of (sometimes undeserved) labels that can attach to someone with the adhesive grip of a miracle glue from a late-night informercial. Yes, Biglaw lawyers can find themselves branded with the equivalent of a scarlet letter. Just like young Hester Prynne, but rather than being branded with an “A,” Biglaw folk get tagged with one-word denigrations of their fitness to reach the promised land of partnership.

There are plenty of one-word adjectives that serve as partnership (and often employment) disqualifiers for those in Biglaw. And just as there is no “I” in team, there are not many favorable descriptors for Biglaw lawyers that start with that letter. Intelligent? Everyone in Biglaw is, at least relative to the large majority of the human race. Inspired? Better suited to describe someone in public interest law, rather than a regulatory expert skilled at carving out exceptions for clients that want to circumvent the very rules that the rest of society is expected to abide by.

What about “interesting”?

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Christina Gagnier

As awareness and use of Bitcoin increases, the question of whether our firm takes Bitcoin, or whether any lawyer should consider taking this new currency as a form of payment, is becoming ever more timely as many lawyers, particularly solos and small firms, try to keep their practices as virtual as possible…

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For Biglaw attorneys, it can take a while to realize the importance of face-to-face interaction in the business world. Especially for those young attorneys who start working at Biglaw firms immediately after graduating law school, and who attended law school immediately after college. In my case, I had a year of real “work experience” before starting law school, but in a very junior position.

So I was not involved, as I suspect most young people outside of tech startups are, in important business interactions. It is debatable whether someone’s experience seeking funding for an app that locates and arranges delivery of fresh donuts on a 24-hour basis counts as “real” business experience of value to lawyers. Nevertheless, many Biglaw attorneys land in their partner-discarded Aeron chair knock-off by jumping directly off the college-law school cliff of debt. And as a result have never attended an important business meeting before joining Biglaw. Ever….

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Juan Monteverde and Alexandra Marchuk

The courtroom battle between Alexandra Marchuk and the litigation boutique where she once worked, Faruqi & Faruqi, rages on. As longtime readers will recall, Marchuk alleges that F&F partner Juan Monteverde sexually harassed her, in severe fashion, and that the firm’s leaders ignored his alleged misdeeds.

But no matter who wins in court, it’s possible to argue that the firm is ending up the loser. It has endured extensive bad publicity, and some of the resulting instability has apparently led to lawyer departures.

Who are the latest attorneys to defect from Faruqi & Faruqi?

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That pesky expert witness is claiming that a AAA battery can’t injure your client as much as you claim. How do you undermine his testimony? Confronting him with strongly-worded questions informed by careful scientific research is one way.

Trying to electrocute him is another way.

Guess which one the lawyer chose in this case?

Oh, Watt the hell, I’ll spoil it, the lawyer tried to electrocute him….

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Last week, I addressed how technological advances and freer access to information can help ex-Biglaw partners like myself transition to a boutique practice without disruption — from the standpoint of being able to conduct a litigation practice in much the same way it was conducted while in Biglaw. As I said, it has become much easier to gain access to the litigation work product of Biglaw firms, for example, reducing Biglaw’s edge in knowledge management over a start-up firm like ours.

Of course, how best to exploit that work product requires training and skill, and to some extent a Biglaw-caliber background to begin with. In other words, the information may be more accessible, but it does not come with an instruction manual. At least when it comes to patent litigation, everyone needs to learn the trade the hard way.

But there is another important area where Biglaw’s edge is eroding….

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Q: You can’t just have a bunch of clients with preexisting intentions to kill someone?

A: Yeah, that would certainly make things more risky for the firm.

– An exchange between Above the Law columnist Carolyn Elefant and Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper, in a segment about the trend of small law firms offering “self-defense retainer plans” for gun owners.

(Read more and watch the full, funny clip, after the jump.)

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Christina Gagnier

Anyone who is a lawyer can relate to the perennial quest to find work-life balance, but this odyssey becomes compounded when you are also the boss. Even though acquiring all of your business, as well as making sure the legal representation you provide is good, determines whether you may be paying your rent in a given month, you have to decide where you draw the line with your clients.

Drawing this line also works to the benefit of your clients, who end up getting more comprehensive and meaningful counsel than through the superficial interaction that not drawing these boundaries may lead to…

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The experience of leaving a Biglaw partnership to start a boutique law firm did not allow me to stop thinking about Biglaw. If anything, I think about Biglaw now more than ever. Because the very nesting grounds that I flew away from, IP litigation departments at national and international law firms, are some of my upstart boutique’s biggest competition for new business. And considering our experience with the first five or so cases that our firm has brought, our adversaries as well. Of course, I continue to work with Biglaw firms as co-counsel on some cases as well.

So I think about Biglaw. How it works, and most often how it fights patent cases. For over a decade I was a Biglaw-branded pugilist, and now that I am on the other side of the ring, I am forced to respect but try and beat the Mike Tyson’s Punchout-worthy cast of characters that Biglaw rolls out on behalf of its clients. There are not many Glass Joe’s in the bunch. Which makes it fun.

I would not have left unless I thought that my partners and I would be competitive — both with Biglaw and with the many quality IP boutiques that have come before us and continue to thrive. But as I think back on how IP litigation practice has changed just in the short amount of time that I have been practicing, I take comfort in the fact that the playing field between Biglaw and boutiques has been leveled across a number of fronts. Two areas in particular deserve focus….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Beyond Biglaw: Biglaw’s Eroding Edge (Part 1)”

* The $160K-Plus Club welcomes its newest member: Duval & Stachenfeld, a real estate firm in NY, is more than doubling its starting salary for associates to $175K. Look for them recruiting at your “tier one” school soon. [New York Law Journal]

* In this economy, bankruptcy firms are being hit hard: Stutman Treister & Glatt, a top L.A. firm that once assisted in cases against Lehman Brothers and Enron Corp. in their Chapter 11 proceedings, is closing up shop. [WSJ Law Blog (sub. req.)]

* It ain’t easy being dean at the law school with the best Biglaw prospects — oh wait, yes it is. Congrats to Gillian Lester, who will serve as Columbia Law’s fifteenth dean come January 2015. [Columbia News]

* “Do I think he thought he was gonna beat it? Yeah.” The district attorney who brought charges against Stephen McDaniel thinks the law school killer was too big for his chainmail britches. [Macon Telegraph]

* From catcalling to “jiggle tests,” NFL cheerleaders have to put up with a lot of really ridiculous stuff. Not being paid the minimum wage is one thing, but having to put up with being groped is quite another. [TIME]

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