Boutique Law Firms

Christina Gagnier

Upon some initial success as a law firm, a key question that is faced is what is the appropriate trajectory for growth. This is simply the fancy way of saying, “Do we have enough money for new things?”

New things may include real office space, an administrative assistant, or your first associate. If it is really your first “expansion” conversation, it could include items like finally getting your RingCentral account for faxing or upgrading to a paid Dropbox account. Regardless of what stage you are at in terms of your growth, it is important to pause and make sure the particular amount of growth is right for you…

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Growing up in Biglaw, I always thought pricing services for clients was easy. Conversations with clients went as follows: “Our rates range from X to Y, and are very competitive with our peer firms. If you have the audacity to ask for a break on these prices, we can offer you a 10% ‘courtesy discount,’ but will include language in our engagement letter allowing us to recoup that discount and more a few months into the engagement.” Of course, even in the mid-2000s (crazy that those days are nearly a decade ago), X was roughly the monthly lease payment on a well-equipped Honda Accord — for the least “experienced” lawyer in the entire firm — and Y was in the range approaching the monthly mortgage payment for a decent-sized colonial in a “pleasant” suburb. That was how things were priced, and depending on your firm, your rates were either considered cheap or expensive. But that categorization was always relative to other firms in your city, with a usually self-selected “peer group.” So there was always a “premium” (but unnecessary) firm more expensive, and on the other end of the pricing spectrum, a “discount shop” that could be sneered at for trying to undercut the market with low prices aimed at masking subpar legal ability.

When there was a surplus of demand for Biglaw’s services, the above approach was a tenable one. Once that surplus turned into a surfeit, firms needed to get a little more creative. At first, the tendency was to simply offer bigger discounts, with the “courtesy 10% off” turning into 25% off or more. Then clients started informing their firms of new “billing guidelines” where certain types of work would no longer be billable. Or where certain lawyers, such as junior associates whose time would no longer be paid for by clients, were magically transformed from revenue-producers for the firms that hired them to deadweight cost center investments in the “firm’s future.” Add in competition from other firms for a shrinking pie of business, and thinking about pricing became more rigorous. In fact, pricing expertise is one of the only Biglaw job skills with a growing rather than shrinking potential employment base….

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Keith Lee

Earlier this week, Carolyn Elefant questioned the value of joining bar associations. Particularly their value in generating business for solo and small firm practitioners. Elefant found bar associations lacking in regards to business development, and generally seemed sour on participation in bar associations for smaller firms. Though she did note a few exceptions:

“I’m not suggesting that solos and smalls steer clear of bar membership entirely; after all, bar associations provide a myriad of practice benefits including substantive information on practice trends, affordable continuing legal education (CLE), and advice on starting and running a law practice.”

While I’m inclined to agree with Elefant regarding the operation of small firms most of the time, in this instance, I have to disagree….

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Juan Monteverde and Alexandra Marchuk

Alexandra Marchuk’s headline-grabbing lawsuit against her former firm, Faruqi & Faruqi, has generated a lot of headaches for the firm. It has given rise to some bad PR. It has created client concerns. It has distracted the firm from its mission of shaking down corporate America vindicating shareholder rights.

And is it now causing the high-profile boutique to lose lawyerly talent? Here’s what we’re hearing….

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Christina Gagnier

Since it is top of mind for many right now, law students and lawyers alike, a discussion of the recently released rankings is likely due. This is something that I admittedly was interested in as I was applying to law school and has been something that my partner and I have been contacted about year after year since we graduated from our alma mater.

The reason we are contacted, though, is out of the sheer disbelief that two women from a Tier 2 law school (then Tier 3, and now Tier “not so sure”) could just walk out of law school and start a firm. It seems to be shocking that this could have occurred.

This is the part of the legal field where rankings matter a lot less than intelligence, perseverance, wit, and the plain-old willingness to roll up your sleeves and get to work to build your law practice…

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Watching other lawyers in action is fun. Much more fun than watching myself in action, as I have had the opportunity to do on a number of occasions. Such as during my trial training days, when the instructors decided that making us watch clips of ourselves try and conduct a direct examination was valuable. At least they got a kick out of it. But as edifying as watching video of yourself can be, you can learn a whole lot more by watching other lawyers. This lesson was ingrained in me as far back as my 1L “summer clerkship” in New Jersey state court. I remember the clerks gathering around on motion day to check out arguments in front of other judges, mostly to watch the lawyers in action. Ditto for trials.

Of course, once you enter practice — especially in Biglaw, where opportunities to even get out of the office are hard-earned — it becomes even more important to turn opportunities to watch other advocates into learning experiences. Because of the nature of the cases we were handling, many of which involved Biglaw firms of some repute on both sides, there were plenty of opportunities to watch great lawyers in action. Just as frequently, I was able to watch inexperienced lawyers from great firms struggle to get through routine litigation events. I am sure that many other lawyers were forced to endure my inexperienced attempts to handle those events along the way as well. Experienced lawyers just love sitting through a deposition where the questioner spends an hour getting through the educational background of the witness…

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I noticed over at the Tax Prof Blog that the LSAC has begun releasing data on the most recent crop of LSAT information. At the Legal Whiteboard, Jerry Organ dives into the data and found that average scores are declining:

Across the 195 law schools in the 48 contiguous states and Hawaii fully-accredited by the ABA’s Section for Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar as of 2010 (thus excluding Belmont, LaVerne, California-Irvine, and Massachusetts-Dartmouth) the entering first-year class average LSAT profile fell one point at all three measures between 2012 and 2013, from 159.6/157/153.5 to 158.6/156/152.5.  The entering first-year class average LSAT profile fell roughly two points at all three measures between 2010 and 2013, from 160.5/158.1/155.2 to 158.6/156/152.5.

The average decline in median LSAT scores between 2012 and 2013 across U.S. News “tiers” of law schools was .98 among top 50 schools, 1.18 among schools ranked 51-99, .72 among schools ranked 100-144, and 1.13 among schools ranked alphabetically.

Which made me want to revisit a post on Associate’s Mind from last year, Top University Students Avoiding Law School, to see if that trend was holding true in light of the above data. The results? See for yourself….

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Christina Gagnier

It would stand to reason that by virtue of graduating law school and passing a state’s bar, you would be able to start a law firm. You might print business cards, get some office space, tell your friends, and the clients would just start coming in.

It would certainly be nice if it worked that way, but it does not. Cultivating clients and client relationships is important, and the time needed to make this happen is a full-time gig in and of itself. While on a panel this past weekend at the Catapult Conference in San Francisco, several solo and small firm attorneys chimed in on what it takes to get clients when you are just starting out…

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Albert Togut: man with a plan (of reorganization).

Maybe the floundering firm of Patton Boggs can actually right itself. It doesn’t have the Biglaw mark of Cain, namely, a name that lends itself to bad puns — e.g., Dewey and “do we,” Howrey and “how are we,” and Thelen (rhymes with “feelin’”). In hindsight, Patton Boggs did the right thing when it dropped George Blow’s name from the marquee and went from “Patton Boggs & Blow” — a name we would have had a field day with — to simply “Patton Boggs.”

(Yes, Patton Boggs has some pun potential. But there are only so many “bogs down” and swamp-related plays on words to be had. Yes, even for us.)

Luckily, for the time being we can use some “Dewey” puns. Because Patton Boggs, for whatever reason, is using all of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s old advisers….

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You learn a lot of lessons practicing in Biglaw. A big one is that you can never be prepared enough. There is always another opinion of your presiding judge to read, or a brief drafted by your opponent in an earlier case to review. Anyone who makes it more than a few years in Biglaw learns that lesson. But as much as preparation is valued, and pursued with fervor as an ideal onto itself, there is absolutely no way for even the most idealistic Biglaw recruit to fully appreciate what they are getting themselves into.

As many know, law school itself has little to teach about the realities of Biglaw, other than to idealize it as a fantasy land of big paychecks and “interesting work.” And everyone’s Biglaw experience is so unique that anecdotal tidbits are of limited utility. Does the professor, who so proudly includes on his resume a two year stint as a M&A associate at a white-shoe firm two decades ago, have much actionable advice to give a graduating 3L headed for a first-year post at even that same firm? Not really, except to perhaps suggest that the best type of relationship with that firm is one where it is your former employer….

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