Does Size Really Matter? Choosing a Law Firm

Does Size Really Matter? Choosing a Law Firm

Small, Medium, or Large? National, Regional, or Local? Law firms are not "one-size-fits-all". In choosing a law firm, size and structure are important considerations, especially since they often dictate other significant factors such as practice areas, types of clients, billable hours requirements, compensation, partnership opportunities, and how decisions and policies are made. While, of course, there are exceptions to every rule, this "Hot Tip" will attempt to lay out some general considerations in choosing the size and type of firm.

Many large and mid-sized firms, whether national, regional, or local, have a corporate defense practice with little plaintiffs', criminal (other than white collar defense) or family law. The larger the firm, generally, the larger the size of client or matter it can service. The advantages of working for such a firm are: a formal training process, opportunity to specialize in complex and sophisticated areas of practice, more resources such as high-tech systems, a substantial law library and support staff. Larger firms typically have higher compensation levels than smaller firms. However, there is little control over one's time and constant pressure towards ever-increasing billable hours and bringing in clients in order to be even considered for partnership in 7-10 years. The larger and national firms, especially those based in the Northeast, have high billing rates, which may restrict the types of clients and matters an attorney can bring into the firm.

If the firm is regional or national, attorneys in branch offices may feel somewhat disenfranchised if important policies are set in the home office. It is important to consider the organizational structure of these firms, to determine how decisions are made with regard to management, client representation, and lawyering strategy. Most of the larger firms, whether national, regional, or local, have very high academic standards for new and lateral hires, considering only those attorneys who graduated close to the top the their class from the 20-25 highest-ranking law schools nationally.

Smaller and more local firms usually represent smaller or middle-market clients in smaller, less complex matters simply because they do not have the "critical mass" to staff the larger engagements. These firms can have a general practice, similar to the larger firms, or a specialized "boutique" practice. For attorneys who are entrepreneurial or enjoy managing the business of law practice, a smaller, more local practice may be a good fit. Advantages include a more intimate working environment, control over and responsibility for business development and lawyering strategy, more "hands-on" legal experience earlier in one's career, and a chance to "be a big fish in a small pond". Although compensation at smaller firms typically is less, there may be more flexibility with regard to billing rates and arrangements which gives attorneys greater latitude in business development. With a smaller or more local firm, there can be more flexibility in hiring criteria as well. While many such firms still emphasize academic standing, other factors such as demonstrated excellence in a practice specialty or a substantial client base may mitigate a less than stellar academic record.

Valerie Fontaine

Valerie A. Fontaine earned her JD from UC Hastings College of Law and her BA, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, from UCLA. She was on the Editorial Board of COMM/ENT, a Journal of Communications and Entertainment Law. Valerie practiced law with a prominent Los Angeles law firm and entered the legal search profession in 1981. Valerie is a member the Board of Directors of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC) and serves on its Ethics Committee.
Valerie Fontaine

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