Boutique Law Firms

Tom Wallerstein

I’ve been known to quip, “I thought I was wrong, once, but I was mistaken.” But I realize that my column here on Above the Law has often been “wrong” in at least one important way: I’ve compared apples to oranges.

For example, I authored a “top ten” list of differences between working in a big firm and working in a boutique. But many of the items focused on differences between employee and owner. I compared working where “you get paid either a salary or an hourly rate” with “running your own shop.” I compared “making all the decisions in my cases” with “waiting for a partner to act on my recommendations.” I compared doing the grunt work with making the important decisions.

That strikes me as comparing apples to oranges because all those comparisons actually contrasted being an employee with being an owner. That fundamental distinction accounts for many of the supposed differences between working in Biglaw and working in a small firm or boutique.

But what about associates who are considering becoming associates at a small firm or boutique? That’s the true apples to apples comparison. If you’re not starting your own business, but will instead remain an associate, what are the real differences when moving “From Biglaw to Boutique”?

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Last week, when I needed a break from educating myself about the differences between legitimate and illegitimate rape, I decided to turn my attention back to the question that consumes the mind of all single women over the age of 25 as cobwebs grow in our wombs: Why can’t I find a nice, professional man to take care of me?

Maybe it’s my long hair? Oh, right, that’s what’s killing my career, not rendering me a spinster. There are just so many pitfalls to being a female, it’s hard to keep track sometimes.

But then I saw him. A beacon of light in today’s sea of unmanly men. Richard Schulte, from Ohio. But let’s call him Rick. Rick is a much more virile name.

His profile is so dripping with testosterone, I just have to go talk to him.

So, Rick, you’re a lawyer? Wow. Isn’t that, like, really scary and intimidating?

Rick Schulte isn’t afraid to go to trial, not a bit. Most attorneys are or at the very least, they’re apprehensive. Big difference.

Oh, we’re talking in the third person now? That’s hot. Natasha likes men who speak in the third person and aren’t afraid.

Please, tell me more….

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As regular readers of Lawyerly Lairs know well, some attorneys have beautiful — and expensive — homes. As we’ve just learned from the impressive submissions in our contest to find the best law firm offices in America, many attorneys’ workplaces are no less spectacular.

With the help of Mary Kate Sullivan, our wonderful intern here at Above the Law, I’ve winnowed the large and impressive field to eight finalists. There’s nice diversity here, in terms of firms (Biglaw versus non-Biglaw); decor (traditional versus modern); and geography (seven different cities, located all over the country).

Let’s check them out, shall we?

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Tom Wallerstein

Many attorneys who leave Biglaw for smaller or solo practices find themselves considering contingent fee cases, either by necessity or design. “By necessity,” because a practice may not have many paying clients when it first forms. “By design,” because an attorney working for a contingent fee has the prospect of hitting a huge payday and making many times what an attorney who bills by the hour can make.

The challenge of business development takes on a whole new meaning when applied to contingent fee lawyers. To some extent, a contingent fee attorney has the opposite problem of an attorney billing by the hour. There is no shortage of clients who want a lawyer they need pay only if they win. Thus, the contingent fee attorney always has too many potential clients whereas the hourly attorney always has too few.

Because attorneys can find themselves inundated with clients offering a contingent fee, evaluating which cases to take, and which to turn down, can be challenging. Essentially, taking a case on contingency is an investment of your time, energy, and financial resources. You need to carefully assess whether the investment is a good one….

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Kim Kardashian

* Apparently spring bonuses don’t make the Biglaw world go ’round after all. The annual Am Law midlevel survey is out, and satisfaction levels are up across the board. Maybe they’re happy to still be employed. [American Lawyer]

* When Dewey get to retire this used up, old D&L pun? Probably around the same time as that Howrey joke — never. Oh, and the firm asked a bankruptcy judge to approve its $70M partner “clawback” plan. [WSJ Law Blog]

* Oh mon dieu, it’s time for some law firm merger mania! DLA Piper, the second-largest Biglaw behemoth, proposed to French firm Frieh Bouhenic, and of course, the corporate boutique said “oui.” [Legal Week]

* Judicial efficiency: Judge Robert Hinkle says he’ll block Florida’s regulations on voter registration groups just as soon as an appeals court boots the state’s arguments. [Bloomberg]

* Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. will step down as judge in the George Zimmerman case after using “disparaging” language in a bail order. Zimmerman’s probably hoping that the third judge will be the charm for him. [CNN]

* Kim Kardashian settled her suit against The Gap over the company’s use of a look-alike actress in an Old Navy commercial. Sigh. She’ll keep getting paid, no matter what we do. [Hollywood, Esq. / Hollywood Reporter]

Tom Wallerstein

Associates in both Biglaw and small should give some thought as to who is their most important client. Some might think that their most important client is their biggest or most prestigious one, or the one whose matter has the most at stake. This week at Morrison & Foerster and Quinn Emanuel, yearning associates might name Apple and Samsung, respectively.

Other associates might take a longer view, and answer that their most important client is the one with the greatest potential to offer them future business.

Still others might select the client for whom the associate has the most responsibility. For example, if you are one of three or four associates on several matters, but the primary or sole associate on another, you may view that latter client as your most important.

All these associates would be making a mistake by not understanding who is truly their most important client….

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Nepotism and small-town law practice have gone hand in hand since the invention of the shingle. Our country’s fine judicial system is littered with dynamic duos of father and son lawyers, fighting injustice one personal injury at a time.

One firm out in Ohio, however, has taken the family business concept to a whole new level. Meet Murray & Murray Co., L.P.A., where nine — count ‘em, nine — members of the Murray family are partners… in a 14-lawyer firm.

Sandusky, Ohio, known for little more than being the home of Cedar Point and sharing a name with the most prominent pedophile in the last decade, is the home turf of the Murray clan. Together, the family handles an array of personal injury matters, from auto and truck accidents to fatal auto and truck accidents.

But just what fate lies in wait for non-Murrays who dare to join the firm?

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Strike a pose.

Over the last week or so, the internet has gone a little bonkers over the newest viral video sensation, in the tradition of the Chris Brown wedding dance and athletes lip-synching to Call Me Maybe.

If you don’t know the video I’m talking about, it’s an old home movie from 1992 of Shaun Sperling’s bar mitzvah. In the video, the then 13-year-old boy dances — quite enthusiastically, in front of dozens of cheering friends and family members — to Madonna’s “Vogue.” It’s just as goofy and awesome as it sounds.

Well, 20 years later Sperling is a commercial litigation attorney in Chicago. In between appearances on the Today Show and Jimmy Kimmel, we caught up with him to ask if his newfound fame has affected his legal work over the last few weeks. In short: it’s been great.…

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With both law school and the law school application season about to resume, let’s return to our popular series of Law School Success Stories. While we believe it’s important to provide our readers with accurate information about the perils of law school, including data about high lawyer unemployment and crushing student debt, we like to balance out the doom and gloom with stories of successful lawyers who made winning bets on legal education.

Today’s success story comes to us via the august pages of the New York Times. Even though this young lawyer didn’t go to a top-tier law school, he’s enjoying a phenomenal legal career, marked by fame and fortune.

His story contains valuable lessons for people thinking about, or already enrolled in, law school. Let’s learn more about him, shall we?

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Tom Wallerstein

I’ve heard that a hungry dog hunts best. I don’t know if that’s actually true because my pugs were always hungry, and yet they could not have caught a three-legged turtle. But the saying makes sense, and I do know that staying hungry — but not desperate — is an important concept for law firms.

One way a young firm should stay hungry is to always search for new business. There are good reasons that I constantly harp on the importance of business development. Even if you are fortunate enough to be busy, you never know when your current workload may dry up. This is particularly true in litigation because any case can always settle or otherwise resolve unexpectedly. No matter how busy you are, you should constantly seek out new work and new clients.

But seeking out new work comes at a potential cost to your current cases and clients. You can’t be so desperate to grow that you spend so much time on business development that you ignore your current clients or let your current caseload suffer. Some lawyers take a churn and burn approach, trying to maximize their short-term return from every engagement, with no concern for the longer-term client relationship. To form a practice that’s built to last, you need to work hard to maintain those relationships, and that means you can’t neglect your current clients while constantly fishing for newer ones….

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