I’ve written before about some of the challenges a small law firm faces when hiring employees. But more fundamental and difficult questions are why and when should a solo or small law shop expand by adding employees?
Like all businesses, most firms with excess demand for their services have a natural incentive to grow. A company is leaving money on the table if it is forced to turn away work because all of its lawyers are at full capacity with their billable work.
The incentive to grow might be tempered by concerns over preserving a valued culture. A small law firm might resist growth because it fears disrupting a favorable workplace environment. With each new associate hired, however, the reasons for not hiring the next associate get weaker.
The major disincentive to growth is the inability to predict future business. Litigation is especially fickle. A case might go to trial, and generate hundreds of hours of billable work, or suddenly be dismissed or settled. In litigation especially, sometimes the line between swamped and dead is razor thin.
This uncertainty makes hiring additional associates extremely risky — even if the immediate workload warrants it….
I hate to invoke a cliché, but “David versus Goliath” captures the challenge a smaller firm faces when litigating against an Am Law 200 firm. A small firm can feel like David when facing a larger firm that can bring more resources to bear on legal research, drafting motions, reviewing documents, etc.
The challenge increases when applied to clients. Many of my firm’s initial clients were startups or emerging companies with limited litigation budgets. Their adversaries often were much larger, established companies with seemingly unlimited budgets. Thus, we faced not only the challenge of litigating against brand-name firms with hundreds of attorneys, but we also initially had clients who simply could not afford to spend as much in legal fees as their well-heeled opponents.
So how can a small firm, especially representing a smaller company, effectively litigate against a proverbial army of lawyers representing a client to whom money is no object?
Everyone knows how challenging it can be for lawyers to find satisfying work in today’s economy. Employers who are looking to hire associate attorneys seem to have the upper hand because there are so many qualified candidates available.
Even with an abundance of candidates, however, hiring associates and support staff can be particularly challenging for small and boutique law firms. Although Biglaw firms are notoriously selective, in some ways they are actually less selective than their smaller counterparts.
Unfortunately for most, and fortunately for some, larger firms’ hiring is largely focused on the candidate’s objective credentials. Every firm pays lip service to its unique culture, but for junior associates your resume is often more important than your personality.
In a small or boutique firm, personality and “fit” are more important than they are in Biglaw. A small firm is more likely to have a distinct firm culture that is a reflection of its partners. The more owners, the more diffuse the personalities and culture. If nothing else, in a smaller environment you are going to be working in closer physical proximity to the other employees.
So, how can small firms find new associates who fit best?
For attorneys who bill by the hour, one of the less enjoyable aspects of the job is recording time. For many associates, entering time is a necessary evil done only under coercion. The process also can be fraught with pressure. Associates know that all too often their worth might be measured by their billable hours.
Of course, for big and small firms alike, we tolerate the timesheets because they are our firms’ lifeblood. Recording our time enables our firms to generate their invoices. The inherent purpose of entering our time is to generate this request for payment.
But an invoice can and should do much more, especially for a small firm or solo practice….
This post is dedicated to William A. Rutter, who passed away last week. If you’re not a lawyer in California, you might not recognize the name. But at least in my world, Rutter is the guy who produced the invaluable and ubiquitous Rutter practice guides, covering a wide range of practice areas and procedures.
If you’re not from California, you might be more familiar with other Rutter creations, like the BAR/BRI prep course he founded, or his Gilbert Law Summaries for law students.
My firm, like most firms in California, has a series of Rutter guides on our shelves. And even though we run a virtually paperless office with Lexis, Westlaw, and other electronic research options, I still love my printed Rutter guides. We even have a joke about Rutter. Whenever a colleague questions their ability to handle a particular matter or solve a particular issue, we joke, “I’m sure there’s a Rutter Guide for that.”
The joke has a serious point, namely, that the basics of most practice areas can always be learned. And if it’s easy enough to learn a practice area, why shouldn’t a lawyer forming a solo practice or small firm become a true generalist, handling everything from family law, wills and trusts, civil, criminal, and essentially whatever walks in the door?
A general counsel recently asked me, “Why should my company risk hiring a lesser-known, small firm?”
I told him that it shouldn’t. I don’t think any company should unnecessarily “risk” its business without good reason. I’ll be the first to admit that there are some matters that simply demand big firm attention.
But I also told the GC that there were many matters that I thought my smaller firm could handle just as well as could a big firm, and with cost savings that would be relatively significant given the amount at stake.
I wouldn’t ask someone to hire me if I thought that doing so was risky for them. A client should not have to choose to lose or win; it needs to make sure the small-firm attorneys have the necessary skill and experience. But with that caveat, some matters are particularly well suited for boutique treatment.
Assuming a client can afford to hire a Biglaw firm for a particular matter, why might it consider a small firm or boutique — beyond the obvious lower cost?
When Above the Law first covered my “adventure in shingle hanging,” I remember someone quipping that our only business came from attorney referrals and that we didn’t have our “own” clients. The comment wasn’t true, but I still found it interesting. Is a client who pays you money somehow not “your” client, or not a “real” client, just because the client was referred to you by another attorney? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
But it is worth thinking about the different ways that solo and small law firms try to generate business. There is a valid distinction between approaching a prospective client and asking him to engage you, and approaching other lawyers and asking them to refer cases to you. I’m not sure one is necessarily superior to the other, but they are different approaches. I think of them as “direct” and “indirect” client solicitation.
I also distinguish “active” and “passive” methods. An active approach is where you identify your client and solicit them. A passive approach is where you do something that encourages clients to solicit you. Passive isn’t a pejorative; for example, a good website is an important part of passive business development.
So, I think business development efforts can fall into a matrix. Check it out, after the jump….
For some, the phrase “small law firm” implies certain stereotyped practice areas, clients, and attorneys. At its worst, the stereotype invokes unsophisticated clients and matters that are routine and uninteresting. I doubt the stereotype is wholly true anywhere. I know for sure it isn’t true in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.
I know many attorneys in small firms who have specialized, high-end practices. These specialized practices are often called boutiques, and they are perfectly suited to serve the entrepreneurial, high-tech client base that abounds in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It remains to be seen whether we’re experiencing a boom or just another bubble, but I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. I’m not an economist and I’m not making predictions. I am only remarking on some great practice opportunities for smaller law firms which exist here, maybe because we are fortunate to have so many imaginative, passionate, and savvy entrepreneurs working on exciting projects in so many different industries….
Thanks to everyone who has sent me emails; really, I’m flattered. I promise I will get back to everyone. A lot of people have asked me questions. For example:
“I am currently a third-year law student . . . . I am hoping to eventually open my own firm (sooner rather than later perhaps) as I am willing to suffer the first few years of practice and not making money in hopes that I can recoup that years down the road . . . . I do not feel that my best years should be wasted working for somebody else (my opinion of a firm is that they are useful right out of school to ‘learn the trade’ but outside of that the firm benefits more from an associate than the associate benefits from the firm . . . .”
I’ll answer this one publicly:
If you are in law school and you have the choice between working for an established firm — big or small — or working for yourself/starting your own firm, it’s a no-brainer that you should go with the established firm first. You can always leave the firm to pursue your own practice at any time, but the converse isn’t true: Once you go out on your own you might forever lose opportunities you have as a student.
In any event, I disagree that a firm necessarily benefits from an associate more than an associate benefits from the firm. I’ll stick with the only thing I really know: my own personal experience. I wrote in my first-ever blog post that “none of my limited success would have been possible without my Biglaw experience.” I think there are three reasons this is true for me….
The other day, I was at dinner with some Biglaw friends. While I prefer to associate only with my small-firm kin, I needed someone to pick up the check. And, I thought I could do some missionary work and convert my friends in to small-firm lawyers (so I could mine them for story ideas, obviously).
Something unexpected happened during dinner. One of my friends asked me why I believe small-firm life is so different from Biglaw. I went through my standard list of reasons: quality of life, money, autonomy, mentoring, etc. I even cited Tom Wallerstein’s Top Ten.
That was where things took an unexpected turn: my friend did not buy it. Indeed, by the end of our dinner he had me questioning my beliefs. Does size matter, I thought? Needless to say, as a woman who has devoted her “career” to writing about small-firm life, this experience shook me to my core.
Let’s see if you can help me make sense of that night….
The evolution of relationships between the genders continues. Currently, in law firms, there is an interesting conundrum; balancing the desire for a gender-blind workplace where “the best lawyer gets the work and advances” and the reality of navigating the complicated maze created by the fact that, in general, men and women do possess differences in their work styles. These variations impact who they work with, how they work, how they build professional connections and how organizations ultimately leverage, reward and recognize the talents of all.
Henry Ford sat on his workbench and sighed. A year earlier, he had personally built 13,000 Model Ts with his own hands. Fashioning lugnuts and tie rods by hand, Ford was loath to ask for help. Sure, there were things about the car that he didn’t quite understand. This explains the lack of reliable navigation systems in the Model T. But Ford persevered because he knew that unless he did everything, he could not reliably call these cars his own.
“Unless my own personal toil is responsible for it, it may as well be called a Hyundai,” Ford remarked at the time.
The preceding may sound unfamiliar because it is categorically untrue. And also monumentally stupid. Henry Ford didn’t build all those cars by hand. He had help and plenty of it. Almost exactly one hundred years ago, Henry Ford opened up the most technologically advanced assembly line the world had ever seen. Built on the premise that work can be chopped up into digestible pieces and completed by many men better than one, the line ushered in an age of unparalleled productivity.
Today, an attorney refers business because he can’t do everything the client asks of him.
There are three reasons why this is way dumber than a made-up Henry Ford story…
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past six years. You can reach them by email: [email protected].
Since late last year, things have been booming in Hong Kong / China in cap markets, especially Hong Kong IPOs. M&A deal flow has recently been getting a bit stronger as well. Although one can’t predict such things with any certainty, all signs are pointing to a banner entire 2014 for the top end US corporate and cap markets practices in Hong Kong / China. This is not really new news, as its been the feeling most in the market have had for a few months now and things continue to look good.
The head of our Asia practice, Evan Jowers, has been in Hong Kong for about 10 days a month (with trips every other month to both Shanghai and Bejing) for the past 7 months, and spending most of his time there meeting with senior US hiring partners at just about all the major US and UK firms there, as well as prospective candidates at all associate levels and partner levels, and when in the US, Evan works Asia hours and is regularly on the phone with such persons, as our the other members of our Asia team. Our Yuliya Vinokurova is in Hong Kong every other month and Robert is there about 5 times a year as well. While we have a solid Asia team of recruiters, Evan Jowers will spend at least some time with all of our candidates for Asia position. We have had long standing relationships, and good friendships in some cases, with hiring partners and other senior US partners in Asia for 8 years now.