Learn 20 reasons why there really is no such thing as a lifestyle law firm and why you should beware moving from a large firm to a boutique in this article.

There are different points of view on this topic. See 25 Reasons Why Boutique Firms Are the Best Choice for Many Attorneys and Can Be Much Safer Than Larger Law Firms for another viewpoint.
A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes

Attorneys working in large law firms tell me on a daily basis that they are interested in working in boutique firms and are even “somewhat flexible” when it comes to their salaries in order to achieve that dream. Who has such a dream and what is it?
You are overworked and feel unappreciated in your large law firm. You feel all alone, dissatisfied, and anxious. You see no future at your large firm and fear you will never be able to bring in clients or develop anything other than a small book of business. But wait … you think … maybe everything would be different in a boutique law firm! If you left your large firm and went to a boutique firm, all your concerns would be alleviated and you would finally be happy practicing law. If you could just make this kind of move, you are certain things would turn around for the better. You would be surrounded by other attorneys who were equally dissatisfied in large law firms and have similar credentials to you. Your dream is that everything will be great once you make the move to a boutique firm.
There are different versions of this dream, of course. In most cases, though, the people who have this dream are attorneys working in large law firms, who are unhappy with their current situations, and who have convinced themselves that their problems would be solved if they moved to smaller law firms.

When these attorneys try to turn their dreams into reality, some end up finding much of what they were looking for. But many others end up in worse shape than they started, getting taken advantage of by those they hoped would save them and ending up realizing that their dream was just an illusion.

Here is what happens: Unhappy large law firm attorneys go out and interview with smaller law firms and give these firms various reasons why they want to move. The smaller firms are wise to what is going on. They realize that these overworked attorneys have blood (excuse me, I mean HOURS) in their veins and lead them on by telling them what they yearn to hear. But beware! These smaller firms are like vampires, planning to get the starry-eyed (and desperate) large firm lawyer on board and suck hours out of him or her (for lower pay, of course). During the interview, they will sit back, smile, and say things like:
  • “We are a team here!”
  • “We all realized the ‘big firm thing’ was not for us.”
  • “We find time to enjoy our weekends here.”
  • “One of my friends at the large law firm I worked from died in his mid-30s. I am sure it was from the stress and hours.”
  • “We can do good work for our clients without having to bill a ton of hours.”
  • “We do just as important work as the big firms do but we are happy.”
  • “We can be flexible on our billing rates. Large law firms cannot, and we can make clients happier.”
  • “We have the same sorts of attorneys as the big firms but can do the work for much less!”
  • “We just went up against a couple of attorneys from a big firm and cleaned their chops!”
  • “We give our young attorneys lots of early responsibility they will not get elsewhere!”
  • “We give our partners a much higher percentage of their collections than larger law firms.”

And what will the large law firm lawyer be saying during the interview? He or she will likely be so anxious to move that he or she will preempt the small law firm’s sales pitch and say things like:
  • “I want to go somewhere where I feel part of a team!”
  • “I am starting to realize the big firm thing is not for me!”
  • “I want time to enjoy my weekend.”
  • “One of my friends at the firm I work for just died. I am sure it was from the hours.”
  • “I want to do good work without having to bill my clients a ton of hours.”
  • “I want to do important work and be happy doing it.”
  • “I cannot bring in my clients to my big firm because the firm is not flexible in its billing rates.”
  • “I would like to work with good attorneys but be able to charge my clients fair rates.”
  • “I want to be able to fight against big firms and win without having to be on overstaffed matters.”
  • “I want more responsibility.”
  • “I want to make more money from the matters I am bringing in.”

This predictable mating dance has been going on for generations, and it still goes on today. The very serious issue, though, is that there are some profound misunderstandings associated with this dance on the sides of both the hiring law firms and the attorneys.
First of all, from the attorney’s perspective, I almost always see attorneys who go to boutiques try and leave within six months to a year after joining them. I will go into the reasons for this in some depth in this article. But the essential issue—the forest for the trees—is this: BOTH BOUTIQUES AND MAJOR LAW FIRMS ARE BUSINESSES THAT NEED BILLING MACHINES AND BUSINESS GENERATING MACHINES TO SERVICE. THE DIFFERENCE IS THAT THE LARGER LAW FIRM IS A MORE HIGHLY EVOLVED AND SOPHISTICATED ORGANISM THAN THE BOUTIQUE. This means that when big firm attorneys get to smaller law firms, they realize that their new firms are businesses just like their last firms—struggling to survive but most often having a much more difficult time. Things are the same … only worse! Despite their apparent allure, smaller firms are not as highly evolved as larger law firms and do not know how to deal with all the intricacies of running a business. Many attorneys who give up the relative security of large law firms (for attorneys who make good career decisions and play the large firm game right) often find themselves in an even more dire situation once they get to the boutiques of their dreams.