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.
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.
This is not the case for every attorney, of course, and some attorneys make good decisions by moving to boutiques. I discuss the benefits of boutiques here. But most do not and end up trying to leave the boutique to go back to a larger law firm (which generally will not have them), or to go in-house (which is more difficult when not coming from a name brand law firm), or they simply leave the law completely. I want to point out one cold hard fact that those fantasizing about the boutique will not want to hear: You are far more likely to succeed and have a long-term career if you move to another large law firm than if you move to a boutique. That is just the way it is, and I have seen this play over and over again over the past several decades. Most attorneys move to boutique law firms because of some soul searching they need to do internally related to whether they should be practicing law in a law firm in the first place, and not because of anything wrong with the actual law firm where they work.
As mentioned, there are some attorneys for whom boutiques are perfect and who should work at one. In fact, a significant percentage of placements I make are with boutiques—more than 40%. This is much higher than any other legal recruiter I have ever spoken with (most would be less than 10% and closer to 5%). I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert in making boutique placements, and have people interviewing with them just about every day of the week—they are good fits for some attorneys, as long as they know what they are getting into.
This article is primarily focused on boutique law firms from the perspective of the attorney making the move from a large law firm to a smaller one. But it is useful to note, additionally, that boutique law firms also should consider that there are risks associated with hiring unhappy large firm lawyers. Boutiques should understand that the attorney who is unhappy and has problems in the large law firm practice setting is also very likely to have the same problems in the small firm practice setting. In fact, these problems are likely to be even further magnified in the small law firm practice setting than they were in the large law firm practice setting. Attorneys who come over from large law firms will more often than not find reasons to be unhappy with their new jobs and bring down the morale of everyone else around them. They will say things to others in the firm like: “The hours here are no different, but we are expected to get paid a ton less.” Pretty soon they will be looking for a new job and leave in the middle of an important matter.
Here is why there is no such thing as “lifestyle” boutique law firms and why you should think twice before moving to a boutique from a big law firm:
20 Reasons Why There Are No Such Thing as "Lifestyle" Boutique Law Firms and Why Boutique Law Firms Can Be Much More Dangerous Than Larger Law Firms
- All Large Law Firms Started Out as Boutiques, and Most Are Eager and Hungry to Grow.
- The Hours Are Marketed to Potential Hires as “Low,” but Attorneys Are Going to Be Expected to Work Extremely Hard If There Is Enough Work.
- Most Boutiques End Up Going Out of Business or Being Absorbed by Larger Law Firms.
- Many Attorneys in Lifestyle Boutique Firms Market Themselves (to Clients and Potential Hires) as Having Been Trained in Large Law Firms; but They Fail to Disclose That They Were Unhappy and Could Not Make It in Large Law Firms, Which Calls into Question Their Ability to Be Happy and Succeed in a Boutique Law Firm.
- The Pay Will Almost Always Be Low at Lifestyle Boutiques Because They Do Not Have Enough Money to Go Around.
- It Is More Difficult to Control (Money-Grabbing) Megalomaniac Partners at Lifestyle Boutiques Than at Larger Law Firms.
- You Are Limited in the Sorts of Clients You Can Bring in to Small Law Firms.
- Small Law Firms Typically Have Fewer Benefits, Less Support, and Less Training than Larger Law Firms.
- It Is More Difficult to Go In-House from Smaller Law Firms.
- In Court and in Deals, Larger Law Firms More Often Than Not Win When They Go against Smaller Firms—and They Command More Respect from Clients, Judges, and Others.
- Boutiques That Are Not Growing Are Not Growing for a Reason—It Could Be Poor Management, Not Enough Drive from the Attorneys, or the Firm Could Be Coasting on a Few Clients.
- More Responsibility Means More Opportunities to Make Mistakes and Get Fired.
- You Are Working for Fewer People: Upset the Wrong Person and Your Career with a Boutique Is Over.
- Boutiques Are Constantly in Danger of Being Absorbed or Going Out of Business.
- Boutiques That Have Been around Awhile and Are Not Growing Typically Are Relying on the Business of a Few Large Partners Who May Leave, Die, or Retire.
- Boutiques Typically Do Not Have Large Clients (or Do Sophisticated Work for Them).
- If You Go to a Lifestyle Boutique, You Generally Will Never Be Able to Return to a Major Law Firm.
- Boutique Law Firms Are Much, Much More Likely to Be “Eat What You Kill” Than Larger Law Firms and Will Not Be Able to Give You Work Indefinitely.
- Large Law Firms Have Been through Consultants, Major Departures, and Problems to Get Where They Are.
- Boutique Law Firms Have Fewer Meaningful Opportunities Compared to Larger Law Firms.
1. All Large Law Firms Started Out as Boutiques, and Most Are Eager and Hungry to Grow
Never forget that the founders of most boutique law firms dream of building major law firms. They want to build these firms on your blood, sweat, and tears. Like generals leading armies into war, they will sacrifice their attorneys in their quest for the glory of growth. Growing firms are nasty places. They are frightening.
There are so many angles I could tell you about that boutiques use to grow, but the main way they grow is by raising profits-per-partner. Boutiques know that the higher the profits-per-partner, the more likely they are to attract partners from large law firms with business. Then, they use the pedigrees of their attorneys and so-called “lifestyle factors” (which often is a scam) to attract associates from large firms. The real growth comes from partners and raising profits-per-partner, which starts a stampede of money and growth to the law firm.
To raise profits-per-partner:
- The law firm will not make many “homegrown” partners and will simply bring in lateral partners with lots of business.
- The law firm will expect higher hours from fewer people.
- The law firm will let scores of people go when work gets slow.
- The law firm will constantly be raising billing rates, making it more difficult for people to bring in business (or to hold on to business).
- The law firm will start cutting unprofitable practice areas (or those with lower billing rates) like employment, trust, and estates, and even patent prosecution—the law firm will build itself up with the revenues from these practice areas and then cut them when it is able to bring in more work.
- The law firm will cut attorneys with low hours.
- The law firm will fire all attorneys with eight or more years of experience to attract younger, hungrier attorneys to do the work and allow partners to do more of the work themselves to raise profits-per-partner.
- See Capitalizing on a Law Firm's Growth—Is Bigger Better? for more information.
2. The Hours Are Marketed to Potential Hires as “Low,” but Attorneys Are Going to Be Expected to Work Extremely Hard If There Is Enough Work
Boutiques love to talk about their low hours to potential hires, and this looks extremely attractive. Many young and impressionable attorneys fall for this—just like they did when they were even younger and believed in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy.
If hours are that low, then the firm has a problem generating work. If hours stay low, the firm will not be around very long. Partners with businesses will leave to make more money elsewhere from lots of bodies billing.
If a boutique law firm has business coming in, it will expect everyone to work extremely hard. The second a major matter comes in, the leaders of the firm get excited and start thinking about all of the things they can do with the money that you generate—their bonuses (new cars and home renovation!), new computers, redecorating the conference room, and more. You are working hard and billing a lot of hours so that the firm leaders can enjoy the fruits of your labor. The more significant work the law firm can generate, the more you will be expected to work. The more you work, the less the law firm has to bear the expense of hiring others to do the work. Boutiques love it when you bill a lot of hours, and it is arguably more important to them that you bill a lot of hours than it is to larger law firms. There is more at stake for the smaller law firm. The money you generate is much more likely to go straight to the top.
Some boutiques will make the calculation that your qualifications look so good to their clients (compared to other attorneys in the firm) that they would rather keep you around with lower hours than lose you (it is a cost-benefit analysis to them). But this never lasts long. Law firm politics will catch up with you, and the people working the hardest will be advanced and not you. The law firm will succeed to the extent others work hard, and the law firm will then gain the ability to pay more and attract people with a similar background to yours (and no longer need to keep you around just because you have impressive paper qualifications).
When hours are perpetually low at boutiques, the boutique goes out of business, has a difficult time paying competitive salaries, and simply does not stay viable. Also, if there are a bunch of unproductive attorneys working on client matters, they will be up against attorneys from other law firms with productive attorneys. These other firms will end up getting the bulk of the business. If the boutique law firm is losing most of the time, clients will not be interested in using them.
- See The BCG Attorney Search Guide to Basic Law Firm Economics and the Billable Hour: What Every Attorney Needs to Understand to Get Ahead for more information.
3. Most Boutiques End Up Going Out of Business or Being Absorbed by Larger Law Firms
Most “prestigious” boutiques are started by refugees from larger law firms who left because they had issues with the management of their firms. This most often means that the attorneys who left were not “the management” and did not have any experience managing. “We will make millions!” they think when they start their boutique law firms away from the management of the large law firm. What they quickly realize is that they have no experience managing a law firm and that keeping everything together is extremely difficult and time-consuming.
Managing a law firm is a far different job than working in one. Most large law firms have decades of experience—or 100+ years of experience—managing a law firm. It is axiomatic that if you put a bunch of people with no management experience in charge of a small law firm that the law firm is likely to fail.
That is exactly what happens. Most boutique law firms fail—the substantial majority of the time. For some boutiques, this happens in less than a year, and in many, it takes 5 to 20 years. Nevertheless, most fail and do so with such regularity that it is a daily occurrence around the country.
- Many boutiques are absorbed by larger law firms. At any one time, I am representing boutiques looking to merge with larger law firms. The founders of the boutiques have realized how difficult managing a law firm is and prefer to just get paid for working in the firm. Many boutiques also have become unsustainable because the people running them have no idea how to control expenses, plan for the future, and so forth.
- Many boutiques simply break up. Two or three people start the firm. They cannot agree on how to split the money (most common), and the person with the most business picks up and leaves. I am dealing with several attorneys in this sort of situation at all points in time. There are many reasons these firms break up. Some that I have seen recently are:
- Loss of one major client. I saw one firm go under that failed when it lost a major client. The firm represented a health insurance company—and it was by far its largest client. But the client fired the law firm and the law firm was gone within a few months.
- A scandal involving a founding partner. This is remarkably common for some reason. A partner does something illegal, embezzles client funds, gets arrested for something, and the firm implodes. I have represented more attorneys than I can count whose firms imploded due to this.
- Many boutiques go under for lack of funds. The law firm no longer has the money to pay salaries. Many attorneys are suddenly turned into hourly employees. “I was paid for 400 hours last year. The year before was a good year and they paid me for 600 hours.” This happens with astonishing regularity. The law firms by this time have often gotten rid of office space and are making all of their attorneys work from home.
- The founders of many boutiques simply retire or stop bringing in work. As attorneys who founded the boutique get older, they stop bringing in work and clients stop using them because they are no longer hungry or able to get results. Without work, the boutiques get rid of associates, stop paying partners a salary, and the work in the firm dries up. The law firm disbands. This is extremely common.
- Many boutiques go out of business because they are sued. Without a lot of hands-on-deck for most matters, they make stupid mistakes and end up getting sued and go out of business.
- See The Law Firm Lifecycle: Why Some Firms Fail for more information.
4. Many Attorneys in Lifestyle Boutique Firms Market Themselves (to Clients and Potential Hires) as Having Been Trained in Large Law Firms; but They Fail to Disclose That They Were Unhappy and Could Not Make It in Large Law Firms, Which Calls into Question Their Ability to Be Happy and Succeed in a Boutique Law Firm
It is not a nice thing to say, but many attorneys who start boutique law firms and go to work in them are the sort of attorneys who could not make it in a large law firm. They may have had personality issues, issues with the quality of their work—who knows? Regardless, do you think it is a good idea to put people who could not make it in one environment all together in a different environment? If you are thinking what I am thinking you should realize the following: People who failed (or were unhappy) in one environment are likely to fail and be unhappy in a new environment as well.
Do you know any unhappy people? An unhappy person is often just as likely to be unhappy sitting on the beach on an exotic island as he or she is sitting in an office building 50 floors up at a desk practicing law. Some people are just unhappy people. In the same way, some people are just unhappy practicing law—it does not matter if it is in a boutique or a major law firm, the person will likely remain unhappy.
You are more likely to succeed when you are around people who are well-adjusted and succeed wherever they go. If you rise in a large law firm, you are more likely to encounter these people (who will provide you the insight and mindset for success as an attorney) than if you are working in a smaller firm.
See the following articles for more information:
- Why Most Attorneys Are Unhappy
- Why You Are Unhappy Practicing Law: Soldiers and Generals in Law Firms
- Happiness, Desire, and the Key to Life
- Ships, Relativity, and Your Happiness
5. The Pay Will Almost Always Be Low at Lifestyle Boutiques Because They Do Not Have Enough Money to Go Around
Lifestyle boutiques typically do not have a lot of money to go around because they: (1) do not have large clients; (2) do not have a lot of bodies to put on matters; (3) do not have a lot of different practice areas they can spin off and upsell work to for their clients; and (4) do have price-sensitive clients.
Without a lot of money being generated, boutique law firms do not have the money to pay you market rates or a desirable salary. This is because they may not be highly evolved businesses—and may never be. When you work at a lifestyle boutique—unless it evolves into a more sophisticated business enterprise—you will never make much money.
- See To Boutique or Not to Boutique for more information.
6. It Is More Difficult to Control (Money-Grabbing) Megalomaniac Partners at Lifestyle Boutiques Than at Larger Law Firms
At most lifestyle boutiques, there are a few partners who generate the majority of the business. At some point in the game, these partners start getting resentful that they are “sharing” so much of their money and demand more and more of the money they are collecting. They keep associate salaries down and start pushing around partners without businesses. These kinds of money-grabbing partners often leave, and if they do not, they set up an environment where things are structured so as much money and power flows to them as possible.
Partners are better controlled in larger law firms because these law firms can more easily replace them. Large law firms are structured so they have multiple streams of income (from multiple partners) coming in and are thus less dependent on any one person. Having many partners helps the large firm deal with the risk created by being dependent on just a few partners.
See the following articles for more information:
- The Top Two Different Ways Law Firm Partners Are Compensated
- Why You Should Find Your “Tribe” and Not Just Focus on Money in Making Law Firm Job Decisions
7. You Are Limited in the Sorts of Clients You Can Bring in to Small Law Firms
Most attorneys choose to buy their suits and work clothes at higher-end stores. When they are sick, most attorneys go to higher-priced doctors. Most attorneys also did not attend the cheapest college or law school that they could find.
Law firm clients are no different. Law firm clients want to hire (and do hire) the law firms with the best brands. The small businessman born overseas with no education operating a small factory making brackets may not understand the difference, but clients with serious money to spend want the very best attorneys possible representing them. They want a name brand, which connotes strength and commands strength in the market and can get things done.
See the following articles for more information:
Larger clients with money to spend almost always prefer larger law firms with major brand names. If you work in a smaller law firm, you will have an extraordinarily difficult time bringing in these sorts of clients—and most of them will not be too impressed with the fact that your billing rates are lower. You will be stuck with smaller to midsized clients. Not only are smaller clients less likely to have larger matters, but they also are more likely to protest each bill and be difficult to collect from. This will set you up for a life in which you can no longer expect to get paid but instead will have to fight for each cent you get from your clients
8. Small Law Firms Typically Have Fewer Benefits, Less Support, and Less Training than Larger Law Firms
Because they have less money coming in, most small law firms cut corners any way they can. They may have cheaper health insurance (if any), no 401K, and less support for the people working there—fewer paralegals, legal secretaries, docketing clerks, and so forth. They also will be less likely to pay for client development expenses and continuing legal education expenses. In fact, no matter how you slice it, the majority of smaller law firms have much less support and resources than larger law firms.
This means that attorneys will be expected to do much more of the work themselves. When an attorney from a large law firm goes to a smaller law firm, the attorney is often amazed at how much busy work and other small tasks the attorney is suddenly required to do. Litigation attorneys suddenly become responsible for doing filings and keeping their calendars, for example.
I continually speak with attorneys at “lifestyle boutiques” who complain to me about the lack of support, benefits, and other resources. There is less money to go around at lifestyle boutiques because there are fewer hours being billed and collected. If you want to work for a smaller law firm, this is one of the tradeoffs in most cases.
- See Choosing between Working in Big and Small Firms: Consider These Factors for more information.
9. It Is More Difficult to Go In-House from Smaller Law Firms
Many attorneys (partners and associates alike) have long-term career goals of going in-house.
Companies almost always prefer to hire attorneys from large law firms instead of hiring attorneys from smaller law firms. The reason is simple: they hire from the law firms whose names they know and trust. If you are a smaller law firm, the company is not as likely to be familiar with you. When a company hires in-house counsel, if you are at a major law firm, the company is much more likely to have confidence in you than if you are coming from a smaller law firm.
See the following articles to learn about the dangers of going in-house:
- Why Going In-house Is Often the Worst Decision a Good Attorney Can Ever Make
- The 'Dark Side' of Going In-house
- Going In-house? Why You May Be Saying Goodbye to Law Firms for Good
10. In Court and in Deals, Larger Law Firms More Often Than Not Win When They Go against Smaller Firms—and They Command More Respect from Clients, Judges, and Others
I do not like this any more than you do: Large law firms carry more respect and are more likely to get better outcomes from opposing counsel and judges. This is just the way it is. I have seen it far too often.
Judges typically are more lenient and more likely to rule for large law firms for many reasons. One reason is that they know that someone is spending a lot of money and the large law firm will uncover any mistake the judge makes and bring it up on appeal—the mere virtue of using a large law firm communicates this. Large law firms also are more likely to be involved in the legal community, known to the judge, and possibly even connected in some direct or indirect way to the judge. Large law firms have more resources and typically write better, research better, and follow procedures more carefully.
In dealing with opposing counsel, large law firms typically get the best terms in deals as well. Large law firms tend to have more specialists and more experience on different types of deals. They will put more hours into understanding deals, will have more levels of people looking things over, and consequently, be able to get the better of the other side. Not surprisingly, small law firm attorneys also are often intimidated by attorneys from larger law firms and let their guards down, are flattered, and end up missing important terms. In many cases, attorneys from smaller law firms have been trying for years to get positions in the very same large law firms they are up against and believe that being nice may give them an advantage when they try to work there again.
- See How Important Is It to Work at a Major Law Firm? for more information.
11. Boutiques That Are Not Growing Are Not Growing for a Reason—It Could Be Poor Management, Not Enough Drive from the Attorneys, or the Firm Could Be Coasting on a Few Clients
If a boutique law firm is not growing, it is often a sign that something is wrong. There is either bad management, the attorneys are not driven to grow the firm, or the firm may be coasting on the work of a few clients.
A lack of growth is not a good sign. If something is not growing, then it is likely to start shrinking and die. This is what happens to most boutique law firms. If there is no growth, then there will be no opportunity for you to grow either—or the responsibility for growth will fall on you.
12. More Responsibility Means More Opportunities to Make Mistakes and Get Fired
It is very common for attorneys to join boutique law firms and then lose their jobs fairly soon after that
One example that comes to mind is in the case of litigators. In large law firms, litigators may be groomed for years before they ever take a deposition. Many partners may never be the first chair in a trial until they have been partners for a decade or more. People are groomed for a long time and given responsibility and additional tasks as they become expert tacticians in one task. In contrast, in small law firms, attorneys are thrown right into the fire.
Years ago, I placed a fifth-year Harvard Law School graduate from Jones Day into a small law firm in Los Angeles. He had never been in court and had only taken a few depositions. Within a few months, he lost his job. He ended up having a next to impossible time finding a new job and ended up gaining over 100 pounds and developing a serious drinking problem after the experience.
The firm called me and said they were letting him go because he was “terrible in court” and “did not have enough confidence in front of the Judge.” You can use your imagination for whatever that is worth, but the attorney had never done anything but sit behind a desk writing briefs. Like all confident graduates from top law schools and major law firms, he came to me wanting “more responsibility” and so forth. He got it.
In small law firms, there are always fewer people looking over your work. You have more responsibility, and when you make mistakes, the consequences are likely to be much harsher. I have seen attorneys fired in small law firms for calendaring mistakes, being late to a closing, and even making a typo. Last week I saw an attorney at a small law firm get fired for making a typographical error (admittedly, it was a serious one) that would have been caught if he had something as simple as a secretary to look at what he turned in. You have much more opportunities to make mistakes and screw up in smaller law firms than larger firms. With more responsibility comes more opportunity to make mistakes.
- See Top 5 Tips for Attorneys Who Make Mistakes for more information.
13. You Are Working for Fewer People: Upset the Wrong Person and Your Career with a Boutique Is Over
You can lose your position for upsetting the wrong person in a large law firm as well. However, the person might be on a different floor—or at the very least avoidable if there are 300+ people working in your office. In a small law firm, it is very difficult to avoid someone you do not get along with. The environment can rapidly become extremely toxic, and you will not be happy in a toxic environment. If you upset the wrong person, suddenly you might find the entire firm against you, and you will be expelled like a virus.
Perhaps you are the sort of person who gets along with everyone and rarely has a conflict with your co-workers. If this is the case, then you have nothing to worry about. Most attorneys, though, do have conflicts from time to time—whether it is about money, the quality of the work you are doing, or even something as simple as pointing out the error(s) of a superior. If you are going to work in a smaller law firm, you should understand that problems can become much larger and significant in that environment than they might be elsewhere.
See the following articles for more information:
- See Your Connection with Others and Not the Differences
- Do Not Be Vengeful: Let Hurt and Anger Go Through You
- You Need to Stop Competing and Seeing Differences Between You and Others
14. Boutiques Are Constantly in Danger of Being Absorbed or Going Out of Business
While I have covered this above to some extent, it is important to understand that most successful boutiques are always in some sort of talks with larger firms. There are very few of these boutiques that are not at any one point in time ready to be somehow absorbed by larger institutions.
If you are working at a successful (growing) boutique, the odds are that the partners in charge have been approached at some time about a merger, have had some discussions in this area, and are always willing to listen to proposals. Most proposals made by larger law firms for acquiring smaller law firms tend to involve the most profitable partners coming over and leaving much of the rest of the firm on its own. Most successful boutiques end up merging into larger law firms at some point. They cannot compete with larger law firms in most markets, as larger firms offer a greater variety of services and the benefits of a more well-run operation.
- See Law Firm Mergers: Why Law Firms Join Forces for more information.
15. Boutiques That Have Been around Awhile and Are Not Growing Typically Are Relying on the Business of a Few Large Partners Who May Leave, Die, or Retire.
If the boutique does not merge, it is likely to go out of business when the most productive lawyers (those with business) leave, die, or retire. This frequently happens to boutique law firms. I regularly get calls from partners in boutique law firms who are “lost” and do not know what to do when the source of their work and business has gone away.
16. Boutiques Typically Do Not Have Large Clients (or Do Sophisticated Work for Them)
Most boutique law firms do not have large clients. This means that their billing rates are lower and they are working for smaller clients that are less likely to want to pay their bills. Very few large clients will give sophisticated work to small law firms for the reasons discussed above. This means that if you work in a boutique law firm that represents small clients, the odds are that you will be doing work that large law firms do not want to do—small transactions, small lawsuits, and so forth. While doing less important work may have some appeal, it limits your prospects and growth.
Without large clients, most boutiques do not have access to “waterfalls of money” that allow the boutique to grow. Large clients have no problem paying legal bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars a month because it is meaningless to them in the larger picture. In contrast, smaller clients do. Attorneys in larger law firms have more support and make more money because they have clients that have turned on these “spigots” of money and keep them going. Large New York City law firms, for example, have some of the best spigots ever—large banks and other institutional clients that have been spending tens of millions of dollars a year with some major law firms for several decades.
- See Top 10 Reasons Attorneys Trained in Major New York City Law Firms Command the Most Respect from the Market for more information.
17. If You Go to a Lifestyle Boutique, You Generally Will Never Be Able to Return to a Major Law Firm
Large law firms hire attorneys coming from other major law firms in most cases. Attorneys from other major law firms have predictable quality, are more likely to be used to working hard, and law firms want to hire people who have stayed in large law firms and not moved to smaller ones. The idea is that if you moved to a smaller law firm once, you will likely move to a small law firm again—or leave the practice of law because what made you unhappy in a large law firm (and then a boutique law firm) will make you unhappy in the next law firm again.
Additionally, large firms look at candidates from smaller firms and assume that they will have had less training than large firm candidates and also assume that they will not have become “specialists” in any practice area, but will instead have become generalists, which are less desirable to large firms. Large law firms typically only hire specialists in one practice area and not generalists.
See the following articles for more information:
18. Boutique Law Firms Are Much, Much More Likely to Be “Eat What You Kill” Than Larger Law Firms and Will Not Be Able to Give You Work Indefinitely
Large law firms represent giant institutional clients—public companies, international banks, foreign governments, and so forth. These clients do not give any thought to spending tens of millions of dollars on their law firms each year. These institutional relationships create opportunities for attorneys without clients of their own to have a role in servicing these clients and do work for them. Many of the equity partners in the largest law firms in the world have never brought in a single client of their own, but benefit from their firms’ institutional relationships and the business this throws off.
If you are a very talented legal practitioner with no business-generating skills on the horizon, you are going to be much more likely to be successful in a major law firm where you can muscle your way into being a valuable contact for an important firm institutional client than you are likely to be with a boutique.
- See Top 9 Ways for Any Attorney to Generate a Ton of Business for more information.
19. Large Law Firms Have Been through Consultants, Major Departures, and Problems to Get Where They Are
Most large law firms have been through decades (if not generations) of growing pains. They have hired consultants, fired consultants, tried numerous compensation plans, lost groups of partners and countless associates, and then built up again and again—after shrinking again and again. If you join a “growing boutique,” this is what lies ahead for you.
Large law firms are businesses that have grown from small law firms and miraculously survived because they did so many things right. Much of the dissatisfaction attorneys have with large law firms is because there is not a perfect model for running a law firm. Large law firms have found the best balance possible for them.
20. Boutique Law Firms Have Fewer Meaningful Opportunities Compared to Larger Law Firms
I speak with attorneys in major law firms each week who want to move to a boutique so they can make partners. But what does partner mean? In a smaller law firm, being a partner may be quite meaningless. In many of the most successful boutique law firms, partners make under $200,000 a year, and in most, the average partner makes less than a senior associate in most major law firms. Since they are “partners,” a high degree of their compensation is often tied to how much work they are bringing in. If the partner does not bring in a lot of work, then his or her compensation may be in the low six figures.
However, if you make “counsel” in a major law firm, you can make over $500,000 a year in many cities—Washington, DC; New York; Chicago; and Los Angeles.
The point is that the term “partner” is relative. If a firm is handing out that title like candy, then it is probably not worth much. The majority of senior associates and counsel-level attorneys in major law firms earn more money than “partners” in boutique law firms and have less pressure to generate business and less income fluctuation.
Attorneys often romanticize working for boutique law firms under the misguided impression that doing so will make their lives and careers much better. While this can be the case, and there are many reasons that a boutique is an attractive choice for the right attorney who understands the trade-offs, it often is not. Attorneys should carefully consider their reasons for taking jobs with boutique law firms before doing so.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Meaning of a Boutique Law Firm?
Law firms with a boutique practice are traditionally limited liability partnerships or professional corporations organized by attorneys with a particular focus on a niche area of law. Boutique firms specialize in just one or a select few practice areas instead of general practice firms, most of which include disparate practice areas. A small or medium-firm may be referred to as a boutique according to some legal publications, though generally, firms with fewer than 100 attorneys would count. Boutique-type firms focus on a particular area, regardless of size, though they are typically smaller, except for a few firms like Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, or Fish & Richardson with over 400 attorneys.
The uniqueness of boutique law firms has enabled them to remain competitive in many fields. In international law, firms like Seattle's Harris & Moure remain a force to be reckoned with. IP boutiques remain competitive due to the complexity of intellectual property law, especially patent law.
Other than IP and International Law Boutiques, there are other types of boutiques, including:
- Corporate Fraud Boutique Law Firm
- Labor and Employment Boutique Law Firm
- Litigation Boutique Law Firm
- M&A Boutique Law Firm
- Tax Boutique Law Firm
- Technology and Venture Capital Boutique Law Firm
Compared to Big Law, What Makes Boutique Law Firms Different?
Size is the most obvious difference between boutique and Big Law firms. Smaller and more specialized firms are known as boutique firms. There are more employees and lawyers at big law firms, as well as a wider array of legal services they provide.
Among the key differences between boutique and large law firms are:
- Size of the staff: The staff of boutique firms is smaller than that of big law firms. Lawyers, paralegals, and law clerks are typically employed by boutique law firms. Unlike small law firms, big law firms have administrative teams.
- Services offered by law firms: Most large firms offer a wide range of legal services, casting a wide net strategically. In contrast, boutique firms specialize in a limited set of services.
- Attorney experience: Large law firms tend to have attorneys of mixed levels of experience as less-experienced attorneys work their way up. Boutique firms' attorneys need to have a high level of experience and knowledge in the firm's practice area(s).
- Selection of clients: Unlike Big Law firms, boutique law firms are more selective in the clients they accept. Some clients may not be a good match for boutique practices due to their less focused approach
Do Boutique Law Firms Pay Well?
Lifestyle Boutiques have low pay almost always because they do not have enough money to pay everyone.
There is typically little money for lifestyle boutiques to spread around because: (1) they do not have large clients; (2) there are not many service bodies; (3) they have few services they can spin off and upsell, and (4) their clients are price-sensitive.
Firms that do not generate a lot of money are not in a position to pay market rates or a desirable salary. These businesses may not be highly evolved, and may not be for a long time to come. Lifestyle boutiques do not usually make much money unless they evolve into more sophisticated companies.
Boutique Law Firm salaries range from approximately $26,000 per year for Secretarial Assistants to $300,000 per year for Receptionists/Assistants. Legal Assistants typically earn approximately $15.31 per hour, while Contract Attorneys earn approximately $41.50 per hour.
In the wake of the pandemic, the legal industry faced many issues and was cautious when going into unchartered territory. As the pandemic enters its second year, it is clear that the country's biggest law firms excelled in the time of crisis unlike any other. After a record-breaking year of profits and competition to retain talent, several firms are offering pay raises to their newest attorneys.
Nevertheless, it is not just the biggest law firms in the country that are competing for talent. In addition to and close to the BigLaw salary scale bandwagon are dozens of mid-sized and specialized boutique firms.
Should I Work at a Boutique Law Firm?
There are many benefits to working with a boutique law firm, whether you are considering your future in the legal field or if you are trying to rebrand your law firm.
The law firms that operate as boutiques are usually small and specialize in a few practice areas. In contrast to the broader catch-all approach of Big Law firms, that narrow focus can offer several advantages. The firm's advantages include providing more personalized services to clients and running a nimbler, entrepreneurial business. Today's legal technology removes many of the administrative barriers that existed in the past, so small firms can operate efficiently and effectively without having to hire a lot of staff.
Why Are Small Law Firms Better?
Boutique law firms provide a variety of benefits, including:
- Enlist a specialist – Boutique firms are big believers in specialization, as mentioned previously. Smaller practices realize that it is better to know everything there is to know about one subject rather than know a little bit about everything. An attorney who runs a general practice will not have as much experience dealing with tax issues as someone managing a tax practice.
- Payless – When you work with a megafirm, you will get a specialist, but you will also wind up paying for a hundred amenities or benefits you will not use. The boutique law firm, on the other hand, offers comparable services for lower prices. Purchasing quality instead of a name will save you money. Due to this, a boutique firm costs about a third as much as a large general practice firm. This is due to the following reasons:
- Billable associate hours do not have a minimum threshold.
- Smaller retainers
- Reduced administrative costs and needs
- The ability to outsource business functions to external companies
- Efficiency is being prioritized
- Reduced turnover leads to more stability
- Personalized Services – Everyone at a boutique firm should know your name and face, the details of your case, and be personally invested in your success. The smaller client list ensures that you get a more individualized experience because they are not juggling hundreds of cases all at once. Consequently, if you are retained as a client, you can rest assured the entire team is committed to your success. The following is the result:
- Mistakes and distractions are reduced
- Motivated attorneys who want to win for you and the firm
- An experienced team that is putting their reputation at stake by taking on your case
- Access – Trying to track down the hot-shot attorney, on whom you have already spent thousands of dollars, is one of the most frustrating experiences. It is not much good to you if they are busy hobnobbing with power clients or working on other cases. It is important to be able to pick up the phone and call someone who will return your call promptly, if not immediately. A smaller firm ensures that your call, email, or text will not get lost in the mix. Concerns will be addressed as quickly as possible.