Boutique Law Firms

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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It is funny how our kids can reawaken old interests for us. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my eldest son started playing organized roller hockey this year. Aside from becoming a quite loud vocal presence at his games, I was also inspired to buy some gear and start practicing with him. I have already addressed the interplay between the Biglaw and boutique “lifestyle” regarding the latter. This week, I want to address another “side effect” of my rekindled interest in hockey. Because you are forced to confront where you stand when something happens in your current reality that sparks memories of an earlier time.

So after a long-hiatus, I have been watching a fair amount of playoff hockey lately. Especially Rangers games, like a good number of my fellow New Yorkers. And when the Rangers made the Stanley Cup by beating the Canadiens a few nights ago, my thought process went like this: “Wow, the Rangers made the Cup!” followed by “This is great, if they win it will be their first Cup since ‘94!” followed by “Hey, I remember senior year in high school when the Rangers winning the Cup was a huge deal” followed by “No way, I graduated high school TWENTY years ago!”

That feels like a very long time. But despite the passage of time, I can also remember certain things from back then as if they just happened….

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Christina Gagnier

Lawyers are not necessarily members of the most beloved profession. While an obvious statement, it is important to realize that your work may end up, despite your most ardent efforts, upsetting your own clients or any foes that you may have had in the course of a litigation matter.

One place that many lawyers overlook as a liability is intellectual property. If someone feels the need to get retribution, messing with a firm by taking advantage of “would-be” intellectual property may be a tactic employed. Make sure you are prepared by taking some common sense and low-cost precautions…

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Astute Biglaw associates, and their fellow associates at boutiques and smaller firms, share an understanding with Tyrion Lannister. For those who don’t watch Game of Thrones, nor read the books upon which the popular series is based, Tyrion (played by the Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage) is the proverbial “second son,” whose father serves as the de facto ruler of the kingdom. His sister is the Queen Regent whose taste for wine matches only her disdain for her younger brother.

At this point in the series (spoiler alert — skip down two paragraphs if you are not up to date with the show), Tyrion stands on trial for alleged regicide. Rightfully skeptical of his chances of exoneration by the tribunal standing in judgment of him, Tyrion elects for “trial by combat” as a means of proving his innocence. While a smart choice, Tyrion is far from capable of physically defeating the literal “Mountain” man that his sister and accuser has selected to represent the “State” in Westeros v. Lannister. He needs a champion.

And he finds one, in the form of a visiting Prince who nurses a longstanding grudge against both Tyrion’s family members, and the man who will be his co-combatant — lucky for Tyrion, as his previous attempts to recruit others to stand as his champion had failed. When we see him at his moment of salvation, he is a desperate man, jailed, facing capital punishment at the hands of a blood-starved beast who disembowels malnourished slaves for sport. The appearance of a champion may not improve his situation all that much. But it gives him hope, and with hope comes the will to carry on.

Law firm associates may not have it quite as bad as Tyrion, but they share in common with him the need for a champion to secure their future….

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Christina Gagnier

Cybersecurity is becoming an important issue for lawyers, whether you are a solo or working at a multinational law firm. When it is so easy and seamless from a workflow perspective to move to the cloud, many firms are pushing their operations and employees to this technology. There are many considerations to weigh when deciding to go from the file cabinet or local server to the cloud…

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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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