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As I surf around the blawgosphere, I have noticed that it seems to be in vogue for solo and small firm attorneys to take potshots at large law firms. If one read only the solo blawgs, it would seem all large law firms are lumbering, inefficient, selfish behemoths, so knocked off balance by this recession that they are about to keel over and smash their marble conference room tables. Then all the solo munchkins would come out of their hiding places in brightly colored garb, sing songs of freedom, and sign up all of the large firms’ former clients.
I am a solo and if large law firms crash, I am going to end up covered in dust.
There is a healthy tension between large law firms (“biglaw”) and solo or small firms (collectively, the “smalls”). Yes, biglaw has a reputation for some qualities that give the law a bad name — high fees, leveraging associates to increase partner salaries, huge billable hour requirements, and lousy work / life balance, to name a few of the popular gripes. But biglaw suits some lawyers. Some lawyers would rather practice law full-time than be a part-time bookkeeper, part-time techie, part-time human resources manager, and occasional lawyer. There are practice areas that are best learned in large firms and major transactions and litigation that a lawyer is only likely to touch in a large firm.
The smalls, in contrast, love to tout their personalized attention to clients, reasonable fees, individual autonomy, and great work / life balance. But not all smalls are good at bringing together the myriad of skills it takes to run a law practice. Most smalls practice some form of “retail” law: criminal, family, personal injury, workers comp, small business, real estate. Often the clients are high maintenance and the income stream equally unstable.
Both types of law firms serve the public. The fee structure of a large law firm makes those firms unreachable for most individual clients; these folks need smalls. A large company with millions of dollars on the line looks for a brand name, the vetting of associates and partners, and the ability to quickly put together a team of lawyers to tackle major litigation or a huge transaction. It is not an accident that there are thousands of small firms and that there are big firms with over a thousand lawyers.
But we need each other. Biglaw needs smalls because the bigger they are, the more conflicts they have. Biglaw’s corporate clients are managed by people — who get divorced, have too much to drink before driving home, get into accidents, etc. Many of those matters need to be referred out. Smart lawyers refer clients to good lawyers they know who are reasonably priced and will treat the client well — like smalls. Biglaw attorneys also need mediators and arbitrators, and smalls are less likely to be conflicted out than neutrals at other large law firms.
Smalls need biglaw, too. Smalls simply do not have the brand recognition that biglaw has; smalls are constantly marketing and looking for referrals. Biglaw attorneys are a great source of referrals for smalls. Also, when a case comes in that is to big for a small to handle, the small firm needs to bring in some muscle. Obscure questions may arise in a client’s case that need special expertise that can be found only at a large firm. Relationships with biglaw are a two-way street.
If all that is not enough, remember that when you serve on a bar committee and need to have a meeting, biglaw will often host and spring for lunch. We all need to eat, so stop bashing biglaw.