Understanding the Pros and Cons of Different Law Firm Types: Finding the Right Fit for Your Legal Career | BCGSearch.com

Understanding the Pros and Cons of Different Law Firm Types: Finding the Right Fit for Your Legal Career


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Harrison Barnes' Legal Career Advice Podcast - Episode 67

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Summary: This article discusses the importance of selecting the right law firm when planning a legal career. It examines the differences between big, boutique, and fast-growing law firms, outlining the pros and cons of each. It also looks at how Meg Whitman's and Marissa Mayer's respective careers have been impacted by their choices in employment, demonstrating that even the best attorneys can have their prospects hampered by the wrong environment. This article offers readers insight into making informed decisions when selecting a law firm that will help them reach their career goals. By evaluating the available options and understanding the potential risks associated with each, readers can make informed decisions to ensure they are in the right environment for their careers. This will help them maximize their potential and succeed in the legal industry.
Which Type of Law Firm Is Best for You and Your Career: Main Offices of Large National Firms, Branch Offices of Large National Firms, Midsized Firms, Boutiques, or Newer Fast-Growing Firms?
  • What is the difference between working in a Big Law firm and a Boutique Law firm?
    Working in a Big Law firm typically provides attorneys with higher salaries, more sophisticated work, and access to highly important clients. On the other hand, Boutique Law Firms offer young attorneys more exposure to clients and hands-on experience but often come with a lower salary and a less talented workforce.
  • Are Fast-Growing Law Firms good for attorneys?
    Fast-Growing Law Firms can offer associates access to work, responsibility, and rapid advancement opportunities. However, they also lack managerial skills and can be vulnerable to mergers which may lead to firm collapse.
  • What can lead to an attorney's long-term success?
    An attorney's long-term success depends on their ability to choose the right firm that offers access to work, responsibility, and rapid advancement opportunities. They should also look for firms with supportive staff and top talent.
  • What factors should attorneys consider when choosing a law firm?
    Attorneys should consider the firm's size, reputation, type of work, salary and benefits, access to clients and mentors, and growth potential when selecting a law firm. They should also assess the working environment to ensure it suits their career goals.
  • What can happen if an attorney chooses the wrong law firm?
    If an attorney makes a poor choice of law firm they choose, their legal career could be negatively impacted. This could lead to lost opportunities, damaged reputation, and impaired professional growth. Poorly managed firms may also be prone to mergers or collapse, damaging an attorney's prospects.
A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes

When attorneys are looking for positions or making career choices, they typically choose among the following five types of law firms:
The firm an attorney selects will likely significantly impact that attorney’s career. Yet even though firm type selection is so critical to an attorney’s success and happiness, most attorneys make job choices without understanding the key differences in firm type and without appreciating the impact firm type will have on their careers. These issues affect partners and associates alike, and unfortunately, more attorney careers fail because of improper firm-type selection than for any other reason.

The differences in firm types primarily revolve around power dynamics and how firms distribute power among the lawyers who work there. Other issues also come into play, and the differences impact compensation, job security, job satisfaction, training opportunities, future options for lateral movement, and more.

This article identifies the five main types of law firms and discusses the pros and cons of each type. These pros and cons are also summarized in a chart at the end of this article. Every attorney needs to be aware of the issues discussed in this article. Understanding the power dynamics, possibilities, and pitfalls of the various types of law firms can be instrumental in helping you make career decisions that will lead to success instead of failure in the legal profession.

1. Main Offices of Large, Established Law Firms

Most attorneys I encounter as a legal recruiter are either trying to work for or trying to leave a large, established law firm. These firms are old—many are over 100 years old—and are not much different now than they were thirty years ago.

Attorneys want to join these types of firms for a host of reasons. They are prestigious, have important work, pay high salaries, offer high profits-per-partner, have “brand” names that make rainmaking easier and are considered enviable places to work. Moreover, for associates, these types of large firms provide excellent training. Young lawyers are trained to be detail-oriented, serve large and demanding clients, and work at the legal profession's highest levels. They also offer unparalleled future career mobility, as large-firm attorneys can lateral out into smaller and midsized firms, whereas lawyers who start at smaller or midsized firms can rarely lateral into large firms.

Attorneys can succeed in these types of firms if they work hard and land the right set of breaks—and success at these firms can be extremely lucrative and rewarding for the few who make it to the top. However, large law firms are grueling workplaces, offering little job security or long-term benefits to anyone besides a small handful of power players. Working in these types of firms leads to extreme unhappiness for many attorneys. The experience causes many attorneys to cease enjoying the practice of law and, in some cases, to cease practicing law altogether.

I spend a lot of time in my career trying to rehabilitate attorneys who have given some of the best years of their lives to these types of firms and sadly have nothing to show for it. I meet them after they have endured incredible hours, massive stress, and dehumanizing conditions. At all points in time, I am dealing with attorneys who are near the breaking point. Many end up “cracking” or have cracked when I see them. They quit their jobs, have addiction issues, and often are so frustrated by the large law firm model that they set their sights on entirely different careers.

What you have to understand about these firms is that when you join them as an associate you are basically “front loading” your career and compensation. You start your career with a limited amount of gas in your tank, and at a large, established law firm, you will likely burn through this gas far faster than you need to and may well end up utterly spent and out of gas after just a few years of toil. Many attorneys in this situation experience health issues, heart attacks, cancer, psychological problems, and alcohol or drug addictions. The salaries these firms pay are often the largest any lawyer will see in their careers, and yet practicing at these firms offers very little in the way of long-term job security or stability.

The truth is that the large, established law firm type is simply not conducive to long-term careers in law practice. Many attorneys will leave these firms after a few years—disillusioned and broken—and many will never practice law again.
Partners also experience difficulties as they become parts of systems that squeeze them to produce more and more revenue under less and less auspicious circumstances. Partners must contend with ever-increasing billing rates (which makes it difficult to keep clients), conflict issues, other partners who hoard work, and management systems that will not hesitate to terminate partners if business slows down.

Large, established law firms run on a “tight” economic model that relies on squeezing as much revenue as possible from clients, partners, and associates. This type of law firm model has evolved over decades into one in which few associates can advance and in which power, control and money are concentrated in the hands of a few people at the top. Large law firms also tend to be very impersonal places to work, which means that there is generally not going to be anyone looking out for you, and there may be factions working against you. While large law firms offer benefits, they also have significant detractions and generally have more politics, gamesmanship, bureaucracy, and other difficulties than other kinds of firms.

It is worth noting, however, that to the extent an attorney wants to work in a large law firm, the best place is typically in the firm’s main office. Attorneys working in the main office have better access to power players and better opportunities to form the connections necessary to get work and advance within the firm.

2. Branch Offices of Large, Established Law Firms

Branch offices of large, established law firms have certain strengths but are typically challenging environments in which to work. Among the upsides of working at a branch office is the possibility of having a better quality of life and work-life balance, as well as the chance to escape the worst of the politics happening in the main office. It is sometimes easier to get hired by a branch office. In some rare cases, associates can actually advance faster than they might at the main office because they are shielded from the day-to-day scrutiny of powerful main office partners. This phenomenon can sometimes work to an associate’s advantage, but the opposite is more often true.

On the downside, branch offices offer a more limited range of work, which for associates means less meaningful experience, training, and opportunity for advancement. Branch office associates do not get the challenging work or the chance for high billable hours as do their main office counterparts, hindering their ability to get ahead. For example, it is very common for branch offices to have only one type of litigation. A major New York law firm may open an office in Silicon Valley and hire a bunch of associates to work on a major antitrust case or a single insurance case that will drag on for years. Associates get very limited experience in these sorts of circumstances.
Branch offices also are always in danger of closing down or laying people off, as many branch offices are established to service a single client or a few clients, and clients or clients can disappear at any time. Additionally, partners in most branch offices are not parts of the “power center” of their law firms and often feel little control over compensation and other decisions that impact their lives. Similarly, partners in branch offices often never feel like they are part of the “real” law firm. Main office partners will deny it, but many branch offices are accorded “second-class status,” so an undercurrent of resentment and insecurity often lurks.

Another issue is that branch offices tend to attract unreliable lateral partners with historical patterns of leaving law firms. Once partners start jumping between law firms, many never stop, and it makes for a chaotic environment for associates and others in the firm who rely on these partners for work and career advancement.

Finally, some branch offices never make partners. For example, the branch office of Simpson Thacher in Los Angeles opened in the late 1990s and, as of this writing, has never made a partner. All of the partners in the office come from New York, where they are connected to others in power.

Of course, not all branch offices of large, established law firms have these problems. Some branch offices have existed for over 50 years and have become power centers in their own right. One outstanding law firm, Quinn Emanuel, started in Los Angeles, where the power center was for a long time. But now, its branch office in New York has become the power center, and the firm has consistently made partners in branch offices.

While problems thus beset some branch offices, this is not always the case. Some branch offices may be growing aggressively, have many opportunities, and be very good places to join.

3. Midsized Law Firms

There are countless types of midsized law firms, but in general midsized firms are found in more regional markets.

Midsized firms offer many advantages. From the happiness perspective, style of life perspective, career advancement perspective, and more, I believe that attorneys can be very happy and craft fulfilling long-term careers inside midsized law firms. Interestingly, while most new attorneys are clamoring to work for large law firms, it is often the attorneys who do not have the opportunity to do so who end up with positions at midsized law firms but with overall more satisfying legal careers. For example, I have noticed that an attorney who goes to an average law school and gets average grades there and then joins a midsized firm for lack of other options will often still practice law a decade later. In contrast, I have noticed that if an attorney goes to a top law school and gets top grades, and joins a large, international law firm, then the odds are high that the attorney will not be practicing law a decade later.

Midsized law firms and the people in them are generally not as “numbers-driven” as the attorneys and management of the largest law firms. As a result, midsized firms are more likely to “protect” their own and to make an effort to keep people around. With generally less demanding clients and less desire at the top for huge salaries, the midsized law firm is often a pleasant place to work.

I consistently deal with attorneys at midsized law firms in smaller to midsized markets such as Rochester, Detroit, Las Vegas, Sacramento, San Diego, Orange County, Indianapolis, Madison and similar cities. I have found that these attorneys are generally far happier, have much more balanced lives, and have much more employment security than attorneys in the largest markets. This is not always the case, but as a general rule, this is true.

There are, of course midsized law firms in large cities as well, and these law firms also generally offer more employment security and better work environments than the largest law firms in those cities. Unproductive partners in midsized law firms are often kept on long after they would have been let go in larger law firms. In addition, midsized firms tend to have lower billing rates, which makes it much easier for attorneys to bring in clients.

Another benefit of joining a midsized firm as a young lawyer is that most midsized firms will more actively involve you in business development activities and take an interest in training you in how to generate businesses. Associates are often treated more as “family” and as part of the firm as opposed to being treated as “workers” or “commodities” with a limited shelf life like large firm associates.

There are also drawbacks to midsized law firms. They tend to pay less and not be competitive with the largest law firms. They often do not have access to the most sophisticated work and vary in terms of work quality expectations. Many midsized firms have difficulty remaining competitive in their respective markets; some are overly dependent on a few clients for their work.

While it is generally difficult to move from a midsized law firm to a larger law firm, it should be noted that in every major legal market, there are scores of midsized law firms with good names that attract the very best associate talent from the top schools. These firms provide the ability for associates to move to larger law firms if they want and also give attorneys access to sophisticated work. Generally, I have found associates in these sorts of firms far happier than their counterparts in larger law firms.

Finally, many midsized law firms have “niche” practices such as real estate, intellectual property, etc. These law firms can be very good places to work, but they are generally at risk of “merging” into large law firms in a competitive legal environment. I would estimate that the majority of prestigious midsized firms are constantly at various points of being approached, approaching, and in discussion with larger law firms about merging. Someone who joins a midsized law firm for the advantages it offers is thus quite likely, after a few years, to find him or herself as part of a larger law firm.

4. Boutique Law Firms

Boutique law firms can offer significant advantages. Attorneys in these firms are far more likely to get more exposure to clients and hands-on experience early in their careers. Depending on the firm, attorneys will also get more interesting work than they might otherwise get at a larger law firm. Attorneys at smaller firms may also get closer to partners and others in charge and form strong relationships that lay the groundwork for solid, long-term careers.

However, there also can be significant disadvantages to boutique law firms—especially the smallest ones—and choosing a boutique firm can be a risky career move for an attorney. These firms may have very good names and access to sophisticated work, but their work and revenue is often generated by one or a few attorneys instead of teams of attorneys, which can lead to issues. The few attorneys generating the work will feel they deserve the “majority” of the “spoils” and will want most of the money from their collections. If just a few attorneys in the firm generate work, they are likely to fight over money and how it is distributed constantly. These conflicts result in an abrasive work environment and often result in the firms breaking up, people losing their jobs, or the firm going away altogether.

Another issue is that making partner is more difficult in boutique firms. While large law firms can grant partnerships to attorneys even if they do not have a business because the firm has large institutional clients, smaller firms generally do not have this luxury. Attorneys will only be advanced if they contribute economically by growing the firm.

Boutique law firms often pay far less than larger law firms—and the pay gap can be significant. For this reason, they often have a difficult time attracting top-level talent and get filled with attorneys who are not hungry enough, talented enough, or qualified enough to be in a larger law firm.

The work in boutique firms is often cyclical and in danger of evaporating entirely. A boutique litigation firm may settle a few cases and lay off all associates. Clients who stay often use the firm because of lower billing rates and because they can pressure the firm to lower its rates. Boutique firms also often have problems with collections, which can create obvious compensation issues.

Finally, unless the boutique firm has an exceptional name, it is extremely difficult for attorneys to lateral up and move to better firms. The training and oversight that smaller firms offer is all over the map and most large law firms are not confident that if they hire someone from a small firm, they will be hiring someone who has been adequately trained for high-level legal work. For example, everyone knows the sort of training and oversight a firm like Skadden has on associates. Firms of this caliber generally have no desire to take a risk on an attorney trained by a smaller firm.

I am aware of many careers that petered out when attorneys joined boutique law firms, but I am also aware of many careers that prospered. A common occurrence is for a dissatisfied partner from a large firm to start a boutique firm and take a talented associate along for the ride. I have seen many attorneys dramatically increase their incomes, become quite wealthy and find much happiness in this sort of arrangement.

5. Newer, Fast Growing Law Firms

It is very common at all points in time for newer law firms to start up in all markets. Regardless of how these firms start, they generally create some “buzz” in their markets, and partners, associates, and others will consider joining them.

On the positive side, these firms will often become large law firms and offer attorneys opportunities they would not otherwise have in midsized or larger law firms. If the law firm’s growth is well managed, attorneys can be advanced rapidly, have access to lots of work, and be given responsibility they would not otherwise be given. In addition, the firm's growth will generally occur because the firm is doing something right. This means that money is being generated, which can create wealth and advancement for the people there.

On the negative side, it is common for fast-growing, newer law firms to collapse. Many lawyers do not possess the skills needed to grow and manage a law firm, and it is, therefore, more common than not for these law firms to fizzle out. More of these law firms end up failing than succeeding, putting people out of work and drastically harming careers. When a law firm begins growing rapidly, the people who work there expect a large share of the profits, which causes fighting and instability. Many of these firms become toxic places to work and simply disband.

Another problem is that fast-growing firms can often become quickly overextended. They will hire too many people, have issues with collections, stop paying people on time and have various other problems. Unable to control their finances, many of these firms die off or “save themselves” by merging into larger law firms.

Summary Chart

Here is a chart that summarizes the pros and cons of the five types of law firms:
Firm Type
Pros Cons
Main Offices of Large, Established Law Firms
  • Prestigious
  • Important work
  • High salaries
  • High profits-per-partner
  • Excellent associate training
  • Brand names that make rainmaking easier
  • Maximum ability to lateral to other firms
  • Best opportunities are generally found in the main offices of these firms.
  • Little job security
  • Not conducive to long-term careers in the practice of law
  • Partners face pressures when it comes to keeping clients and business development due to increasing billing rates and conflicts issues
  • Much unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and stress in the workforce
  • Dehumanizing conditions
  • Political
  • Bureaucratic
  • Impersonal
Branch Offices of Large, Established Law Firms
  • Better quality of life and work-life balance
  • Less political
  • Sometimes easier to get hired at a branch office
  • Some branch offices can become power centers and thrive
  • Can close down at any time
  • For associates, limited training and advancement opportunities
  • Less challenging and diverse work
  • It can be chaotic due to unstable partners
  • Rarely make partners
  • Branch office partners are left out of compensation and other important matters and often feel like “second-class” citizens
Midsized Law Firms
  • Tend to produce attorneys who are happy and fulfilled over time
  • Conducive to the long-term practice of law
  • More job security
  • Less numbers-driven
  • People look out for each other
  • More interest in helping associates advance and learn how to generate business
  • Pleasant atmosphere
  • Less sophisticated work
  • Less important clients
  • Lower salaries
  • Lower profits-per-partner
  • Can experience difficulty remaining competitive in their respective markets
  • Can be overly dependent on a few clients
  • Difficult to lateral to a larger law firm
Boutique Law Firms
  • Offer young attorneys more exposure to clients and hands-on experience
  • Offer young attorneys more interesting work
  • Offer young attorneys the chance to bond with partners and develop relationships that lead to long-term success
  • Reliance on a few business-generating partners can lead to fights about money, an abrasive environment, and a lack of advancement opportunities
  • Lower salaries and a less-talented workforce
  • Unpredictable workflow
  • Collections issues
  • Generally difficult to lateral to a larger firm
Newer, Fast Growing Law Firms
  • Can offer associates access to work, responsibility, and rapid advancement opportunities
  • Can end up as successful firms
  • Lack of managerial skills and overextension can lead to a firm collapse
  • Vulnerable to mergers


Attorneys, like all people, make employment decisions that have profound ramifications on the course of their careers:
  • Meg Whitman joined eBay when it was a top player in the online auction space, had a huge growing user base, and was already growing rapidly and doing incredibly well. She subsequently got a reputation for being a great executive because she was leading the company while it grew. It was not her idea to start the company; it was already growing like crazy when she got there. Nevertheless, she got a reputation for being a great leader.
  • Marissa Mayer was at Google when it was already well underway and getting a massive market share in the search business. She subsequently got a reputation for being a great executive because she was in a leadership position at the company while it was doing well. It was also not her idea to start the company; it was already growing like crazy when she got there. Nevertheless, she got a reputation for being a great leader.

The second chapter of their careers turned out differently: Both joined companies with problems and neither was able to turn these two companies around. When they were joining the companies, everyone heralded that they would save the companies—stock prices even rose! While they may have had great reputations when they were at growing companies (that were growing long before they got there), they lost their reputations when they could not fix a sinking ship. Article after article then started describing these two executives' various weaknesses and shortfalls.

The type of law firm you choose can also largely define you as a lawyer and the success or failure of your legal career. No matter how great of an attorney you are, if you place your prospects in the wrong environment, you will likely go down with the ship.

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is a prominent figure in the legal placement industry, known for his expertise in attorney placements and his extensive knowledge of the legal profession.

With over 25 years of experience, he has established himself as a leading voice in the field and has helped thousands of lawyers and law students find their ideal career paths.

Barnes is a former federal law clerk and associate at Quinn Emanuel and a graduate of the University of Chicago College and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at the University of Chicago and a member of the University of Virginia Law Review. Early in his legal career, he enrolled in Stanford Business School but dropped out because he missed legal recruiting too much.

Barnes' approach to the legal industry is rooted in his commitment to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. He believes that the key to success in the legal profession is to be proactive, persistent, and disciplined in one's approach to work and life. He encourages lawyers to take ownership of their careers and to focus on developing their skills and expertise in a way that aligns with their passions and interests.

One of how Barnes provides support to lawyers is through his writing. On his blog, HarrisonBarnes.com, and BCGSearch.com, he regularly shares his insights and advice on a range of topics related to the legal profession. Through his writing, he aims to empower lawyers to control their careers and make informed decisions about their professional development.

One of Barnes's fundamental philosophies in his writing is the importance of networking. He believes that networking is a critical component of career success and that it is essential for lawyers to establish relationships with others in their field. He encourages lawyers to attend events, join organizations, and connect with others in the legal community to build their professional networks.

Another central theme in Barnes' writing is the importance of personal and professional development. He believes that lawyers should continuously strive to improve themselves and develop their skills to succeed in their careers. He encourages lawyers to pursue ongoing education and training actively, read widely, and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

In addition to his work in the legal industry, Barnes is also a fitness and lifestyle enthusiast. He sees fitness and wellness as integral to his personal and professional development and encourages others to adopt a similar mindset. He starts his day at 4:00 am and dedicates several daily hours to running, weightlifting, and pursuing spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Barnes is a strong advocate for community service and giving back. He volunteers for the University of Chicago, where he is the former area chair of Los Angeles for the University of Chicago Admissions Office. He also serves as the President of the Young Presidents Organization's Century City Los Angeles Chapter, where he works to support and connect young business leaders.

In conclusion, Harrison Barnes is a visionary legal industry leader committed to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. Through his work at BCG Attorney Search, writing, and community involvement, he empowers lawyers to take control of their careers, develop their skills continuously, and lead fulfilling and successful lives. His philosophy of being proactive, persistent, and disciplined, combined with his focus on personal and professional development, makes him a valuable resource for anyone looking to succeed in the legal profession.

About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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