Bartlit Beck

Andy DeVooght

We’ve discussed in these pages the trend of going “from Biglaw to boutique” (and it was the title of Tom Wallerstein’s column for us as well). Lawyers who could easily work at mega-firms are opting instead for the flexibility and collegiality of small-firm practice — and clients are following them.

Today’s notable move involves Andy DeVooght, coming out of the U.S. Attorney’s in Chicago. DeVooght has an enviable résumé. Before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he worked as a partner at Winston & Strawn and clerked on the U.S. Supreme Court, for the late Chief Justice Rehnquist.

Instead of returning to Biglaw, a common path for someone in DeVooght’s shoes, he’s joining a buzz-generating boutique. Which one?

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If you follow the world of large law firms, then you are probably familiar with the incisive and candid commentary of Steven J. Harper. Over at his blog, The Belly of the Beast, Harper offers excellent insights into the world of Biglaw.

Harper knows so much about that world because he spent his entire legal career in it. He joined Kirkland & Ellis after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1979. He practiced litigation at the firm for about 30 years, until his retirement in 2008, at the early age of 54 (which you can afford to do when you’re an equity partner at a firm as lucrative as K&E).

In addition to blogging, Harper has written four books. I spoke last week with Harper about his latest book, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (affiliate link), and about his views on the worlds of Biglaw and legal education….

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If you’re a former Supreme Court clerk, the legal world is your oyster. In the words of one observer, “Supreme Court clerkships have become the Willy Wonka golden tickets of the legal profession. So many top-shelf opportunities within the law, such as tenure-track professorships and jobs in the SG’s office, [are] reserved for members of the Elect.”

If you work at a hedge fund, maybe after a stint at Goldman Sachs or a similarly elite investment bank, you’re the Wall Street version of a SCOTUS clerk — at the top of the field, but with way more money. There aren’t many Lawyerly Lairs out there that cost $60 million (the cost of hedge fund magnate Steve Cohen’s new Hamptons house).

What could lure four high-powered lawyers and hedge-fund types, including two former clerks to the all-powerful Justice Anthony Kennedy, to leave their current perches? How about the chance to earn the kind of money that would make a Supreme Court clerkship bonus look like a diner waitress’s tip?

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When I graduated from law school, I decided that I would take a job at a large law firm because it would maximize my chances of going in-house. I had no idea what either job would entail, but it seemed like a sensible plan. And, even without knowing what it would be like to be a litigation associate in Biglaw, I suspected it would be bad enough that an exit strategy would be necessary.

A few years later, I switched my exit strategy and went to a small firm. I decided that I could not wait for three to five more years to get the skills required to go in-house. So, I went to a small firm to get “hands on experience” and position myself for my new exit strategy: a federal government job. Then, hiring for federal jobs froze, and the few openings were impossible to get unless you had the exact experience required and could figure out your grade level. Consequently, I am currently reformulating my exit strategy. I am contemplating running for president or becoming a certified yoga instructor.

I have yet to meet a lawyer who did not plan or fantasize about his or her exit strategy from law firm associate, be it Biglaw or small. I blame it on the nightmare that is billing hours — even if the requirement might be less at some places. The most common exit strategies are (1) in-house and (2) fitness professional.

Is it possible, however, for a small-firm associate to go in-house, or is the small-firm associate required to follow my path and find a new exit strategy?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Size Matters, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

I moved from Biglaw to a small firm in 2008. I had heard the term “litigation boutique” used positively. Also, I had heard tales of Biglaw associates going on to small firms and doing great things (although I did not actually know any). But, other than that “information,” I had no idea how to go about researching and choosing a small firm. Other associates who have chosen to go small have told me similar stories. There’s very little information about the various small law firms. Indeed, there is no Vault Guide and, until recently, no big-mouthed small firm associates sharing their tales.

So, what did I do? I got a headhunter and took her sales pitch as truth.

Times are different now. Not only because you have me (i.e., your greatest resource for information on small law firms; except, of course, for Jay), but also because headhunters are not as prevalent as they used to be. This is because, obviously, there are fewer jobs and because a lot of small firms have stopped using headhunters (query whether using headhunters is ever a good idea when going small — discuss).

Why is there so little information out there about small law firms?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Size Matters: How Small Is Too Big? A Vocabulary Lesson”