From Biglaw to Boutique

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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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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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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Tom Wallerstein

For attorneys starting their own firms, one of the more difficult things to learn is how much time to spend on a prospective client. Attorneys take various approaches. Some attorneys say, reasonably enough, I don’t work for free, and will do little more than quote their rates. Attorneys who employ mass marketing will offer a “free consultation,” but that generally amounts to little more than a way to encourage unsophisticated clients to call them as opposed to someone else.

If your business model depends on high volume of a particular type of case, it probably doesn’t make sense to devote too much effort to soliciting any one particular client. But if you are pursuing fewer, higher-stakes or more complex matters, then you very well could struggle with how to strike the proper balance….

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Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are well accustomed to the concept of diversity. San Franciscans embrace it. They live among and celebrate people of every race, ethnicity and nationality. They embrace every sexual orientation. And they welcome political persuasions spanning the gamut from socialist to liberal. Ah, life’s infinite diversity.

I’ve mentioned before that when I snorkeled in the Cayman Islands, I was amazed at the vast number of different species of fish. When I go to a favorite deli or café, I’m reluctant to order “the usual,” however much I might enjoy it, because I’ve always believed that variety is good. The concepts of variety and diversity present themselves to us every day.

Diversity is also an important concept for law firms, especially smaller law firms and boutiques. And this is true of “diversity” in a variety of contexts, some of which are not so obvious….

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Tom Wallerstein

I recently had a client ask me about asset protection strategies. Having read The Firm (affiliate link) before I ever went to law school, and mindful of the classic Tom Cruise movie of the same name, of course I did what any diligent attorney devoted to client-service would do: I headed off to the Cayman Islands to investigate.

Due to an unfortunate series of strange boating accidents which I am not at liberty to discuss, my trip ended up lasting a bit longer than I expected. My email and telephone conversations also became compromised, hence my extended ATL hiatus.

Alas, the good guys prevailed, I am back safe and sound, and I’m happy to write about some of my reflections from beautiful Cayman (pronounced, as I learned from the locals, “Cay-Man,” with two distinct, equally prominent syllables, almost rhyming with “Cave-Man;” not “Cay-min” rhyming with “layman”)….

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Tom Wallerstein

Anyone who has been around children is familiar with the challenge of getting them to eat what you want them to eat. “My daughter won’t eat vegetables.” “My son only eats cheetos.” Like a lot of parents, I find myself frustrated by this dynamic. But I also have to laugh, because I know the solution is so simple. If someone is hungry enough, they will easily overcome their aversion to whatever particular food they think they don’t like.

For example, you might not like broccoli, and you swear you would never eat broccoli under any circumstances. But if you were on a desert island with nothing to eat except broccoli, it would not take very long for you to overcome, or at least overpower, your distaste. So, if you really want your kid to eat X, then just don’t allow them to fill up on not-X. Nature will take care of the rest. We’ve all got to eat, and a child won’t die from voluntary starvation any more than someone can kill themselves by holding their breath.

Like a lot of kids, mine have a very narrow range of food that they profess to like. Dinner, therefore, has a familiar refrain. The kids insist they don’t like X, and I tell them, “That’s fine. I understand you don’t like X. No one can tell you what you should like, and what you shouldn’t. You don’t need to like X if you don’t want to. Now shut up and eat it.”

Thus, “You Don’t Have to Like It” has become something of a mantra to me.

What does this have to do with succeeding in a small law firm?

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Partners love to emphasize to candidates who are interviewing that their firm provides not only “early responsibility,” but also abundant “client contact.” Associates who interview eat that stuff up. “Client contact” sounds like the epitome of what being a lawyer is all about.

But sometimes client contact might not be all it’s cracked up to be. For an associate, talking to a client often has little short term upside and lots of potential downside. If you give good advice, the partner is likely to take the credit for it. If you give bad advice, you better believe you will take the blame.

Once an attorney is blessed with significant client contact, they learn rather quickly that the much-vaunted experience can be rather overrated. More times than not, a ringing phone does not a happy lawyer make. Just consider some of the reasons why clients are likely to be calling….

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Tom Wallerstein

Associates generally don’t have much room to negotiate salary or benefits in Biglaw. Beyond paying a premium for specialized skill sets (e.g., an engineering degree) or pedigree (e.g., a former Supreme Court clerk), those firms tend to pay a certain amount per class year with little variance among individuals. Among different Am Law 100 firms, there is relatively little variance. A few firms pay exceptionally well and a few others lag below market, but all the Am Law 100 firms have generally similar salary structures.

Not so with small firms, solo practices, and boutiques. According to the Robert Half Salary Guide, for example, the median starting salary for a first year associate at a ten-attorney firm in the San Francisco Bay area ranges between approximately $66,000 and $113,000 per year. That’s quite a spread. Of course, ten-attorney firms also vary so much from one to another that trying to compare salaries across firms often makes little sense.

Small firms thus have considerable flexibility in setting salaries, and associates have significantly more room to negotiate their salaries in the small firm environment. Granted, associates at small firms will tend to make less — sometimes significantly so — than their Biglaw counterparts. Be that as it may, valuing the worth of an associate to a small firm can be complicated.

Often, associates who are used to the Biglaw model both overvalue and undervalue their worth to a small firm or boutique….

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Tom Wallerstein

I have long spent my Sunday nights watching HBO. When I graduated from law school, The Sopranos was in its first season. More recently, I’ve been enthralled by Game of Thrones. For those who aren’t fans, Game of Thrones is a medieval fantasy series which won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, and a Golden Globe Award for “Best Television Series – Drama.” I guess this post needs a spoiler alert, because what follows are some legal lessons I think can be gleaned from the hit series.

That being said, let’s take a look at the six lessons that the legal world could learn from Game of Thrones….

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