Stop Bashing BigLaw


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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.


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  • Good post.

    I think bashing something like “BigLaw” says more about the person doing the bashing than about BigLaw. It just looks unprofessional to me.

  • This is an interesting post. I have criticized biglaw, both at MyShingle and at my former post at Legal Blog Watch. However, I have also acknowledged the benefits that it provides to lawyers in terms of training which is why, when working at biglaw was an option for grads (no longer the case), I would often recommend that new lawyers spend a year or two at a large firm to get training and build connections.

    At the same time, (and please do not take offense), I wonder how much experience you have with truly big firms. I’m not talking about a 50-100 person biglaw firm in a mid-sized city, but rather the 1000+ behemoths that are suffering now. Those of us who have litigated against large firms realize much of the waste first hand. I recently completed a case against an AmLaw 200 firm where along with a contract associate and my assistant, represented a group of clients in federal court against a corporate client represented by four lawyers, with a fifth brought in to help on the day of the hearing. In spite of all the support, my clients still prevailed. I simply cannot see what would justify that level of participation on a case that I handled, quite capably, on my own.
    I have also had large firms poach clients by undercutting their rates, even taking clients on for free. These days, many big firms are loath to give up small matters, and in fact, are now competing with solo and small firms for that work. Though conflicts work is still available – and you are right that biglaw can be a source of referral in that regard – the truth is that many firms are not giving away the cases that they once did.
    Finally, I think it is very difficult not to criticize firms for their current conduct with regard to layoffs. Associates with 0-3 years of experience are taking the brunt of the layoffs, which is both irresponsible and unfair. Law firm management made the decision to pay high salaries and keep increasing rates for clients, without ever imagining that clients would one day cry uncle and go elsewhere. Law firm management failed to take heed of new business models like Axiom, which are providing routine corporate services, nor did it foresee that the Internet would allow inhouse- counsel to pick and choose lawyers with expertise in a particular area and build their own outside teams instead of relying on one-stop shopping at biglaw. All of these poor decisions exacerbated the economy’s impact on large firm profits, and yet its associates who are suffering the poor decision making, not partners. Bruce Macewen has written on several occasions (such as here – on the cost of non-equity partners to law firms. In general, they are less productive and more costly than associates. Yet far more associates are taking the hit in the downturn than non-equities. And even worse, it’s NOW that biglaw decides to change the game by moving away from the leveraged billable hour system to flat fees. Think about it – flat fees reward experienced lawyers who can do the work quickly and efficiently. Most partners (equity or non-equity) are experienced and can make money off of flat fees. Meanwhile, associates who were never provided with substantive training lack that ability. And so they’re being shown the door.
    I find this unforgivable.

  • I think you may have missed the point of my post. Pointing fingers is not a solution. Instead of competing for scraps, we should be working on making the pie bigger.

    If biglaw is inefficient, then that is between them and their clients, most of whom are sophisticated enough to figure out whether their money is being wasted. I see smalls every day that are inefficient, overbill their clients, and mistreat their employees. Instead of just criticizing big firms, smalls should look at some of the innovative fee structures that biglaw and their corporate clients are coming up with (incentive payments, success fees, predicting the timing of fees) and figure out if there are ways to replicate those structures for the typical small firm client.

    I confess I do not understand what is surprising or evil about biglaw firing new associates. The same capitalist principles that led biglaw to fire young associates will allow those associates to become smalls if they so choose. if there is truly no longer a place for biglaw in the delivery of legal services, that end will come soon enough. But I think it is unlikely (biglaw partners who take home $500k+/yr have a ways to go before they will be “suffering”) and attacking all big firms for the decisions a few of them made is unproductive. Biglaw and smalls should find ways to be colleagues, not combatants.

  • Eric,
    If you read the blogs, you’ll see that it’s small firms that have been implementing innovations for years, not the other way around. People like Patrick Lamb (founder of Valorem) has been blogging about alternative fees for five years as I documented at MyShingle – and smaller firms have been filling that need as described here – and here – Bloggers like Allison Shields (who advises solo and small firm lawyers) and Jay Shepard (who is a small firm lawyer) have been blogging about alternative billing for several years, long before large firms came up with the idea of abandoning the billable hour. Yes, I agree that many solo and small firm lawyers are in the dark about alternative billing. But many have also been innovators in this area and what is so frustrating, is that as a solo or small firm lawyer, it’s nearly impossible to get traction for these ideas in the broader legal profession.

    Believe me, I’d love to be even handed about the big firm/small firm collegiality issue. But consider this. Most solo and small firm lawyers read blogs like Above the Law, Wall Street Journal Law Blog and “biglaw” publications like to keep abreast of news. By contrast, how many large firm lawyers read solo and small firm blogs? In addition, despite the so-called bashing of biglaw at solo blogs, what about the bashing that biglaw takes on a daily basis from its own, at sites like Above the Law? In fact, who do you think is circulating all of those inside memos about law firm “theme songs” and downsizing to ATL? All biglaw insiders, intent on making fools of their employers. Yes, I’ve seen criticisms of large firms at solo and small firm blogs, but nothing on the level of what takes place at ATL.
    In fact, thinking of solo and small firm blogs, I’m hard pressed to come up with many that devote most of their time to criticizing biglaw. Yes, I have had my share of critical posts – but I can count ten, perhaps 15 over the past 6 and a half years, which is pocket-change when you consider that I’ve blogged close to 1500 posts during that same time frame. (As an aside, I have also taken care to never, ever personalize the biglaw/small firm issue. I have noticed comments at a few solo and small firm blogs about how big-law associates are morons or unqualified. I’ve never said anything like that and in fact, I often post on biglaw-to-solo success stories precisely to inspire unhappy associates to consider the solo option rather than leaving the law entirely – because I hate to see our profession lose this talent).
    Perhaps you can give some examples of the types of posts you’re referencing, because I don’t see them.

  • Eric and Carolyn, each of you have made some good points. In my 18 years of law practice I worked in BigLaw, SmallLaw and even MediumLaw. They all have their benefits and detriments, for both the lawyer and the client. However, most clients paint us all with the same brush: lawyer. So when we bash other lawyers, we bash ourselves.

    The problems the legal profession faces today are complex and ingrained. And a few marble conference room tables HAVE been smashed (read: WolfBlock, Thelin and Thatcher Proffit). There are some very talented thinkers in the blawgosphere, present company included. They have done a good job of shedding light on the flaws in our profession. Now we need our best thinkers to be creative and solution-oriented in describing just how changes can be brought about, keeping in mind all the various stakeholders.

    Carolyn, you and others have provided a great service for years in showing unhappy lawyers how they can strike out on their own to create a more fulfilling practice. I think the current upheaval presents a great opportunity for blawgers to make a positive difference within BigLaw, too. I’m trying to do my part as a coach. I call it “changing the world, one lawyer at a time.”

  • Eric, you’re absolutely right that pointing fingers is not the solution, yet that’s exactly what you did in your post – at the “smalls”. Your is one of acquiescence to big law practices. This goes to my Twitter earlier that “there seems to be a hesitancy in challenging convention, even a backlash against those who do”.

    Regarding your reply:

    “If biglaw is inefficient, then that is between them and their clients, most of whom are sophisticated enough to figure out whether their money is being wasted” —- This statement is not entirely true. It’s the emerging transparency that tech and the porous economy have produced that have enabled clients to become aware of biglaw inefficiencies and even when they do, there’s an institutional culture that’s pervasive enough to fuel inaction, at least in the short term.

    “I see smalls every day that are inefficient, overbill their clients, and mistreat their employees” —- No one is suggesting that this doesn’t exist — it’s simply much easier to recognize and change problems as they occur – the “nimble” effect of “smalls”

    “Instead of just criticizing big firms, smalls should look at some of the innovative fee structures that biglaw and their corporate clients are coming up with (incentive payments, success fees, predicting the timing of fees) and figure out if there are ways to replicate those structures for the typical small firm client” —- huh? That’s exactly what “smalls” have done and continue to do, paving the way for clients to demand the same from big law.

    Stop criticizing biglaw or any entity for that matter, when deserved? Of course not

  • I’ve enjoyed reading this post and all the comments. My overriding thought is that whether a large firm or small one, we are all businesses, and like business in general, there are some that well run and better managed than others.
    The problem in the UK is that there is a glut of lawyers, and sadly many are setting up solo practices and finding themselves trapped in a situation where they can’t close down their firms (unless they’re willing to pay 6 times their annual Professional Indemnity insurance by way of run off cover), and they aren’t earning enough to continue. Many solo firms lack the business and marketing skills required to create a truly successful business that someone will buy off them. The problem is that they set up their firms for the wrong reasons – redundancy, or for lifestyle reasons, and then find it doesn’t provide the income they had hoped for.
    A new business model is emerging right now in the UK of lawyers NOT setting up their own law firms but offering their services on a case by case basis to other law firms (usually the larger ones) at far lower hourly rates than they would need to charge if they had their own law firm. They work from home, and end up making a lot more money than they were making as salaried employees, and much more than many solos make who set up their own firms. If a prospective client of the lawyer wants a big brand law firm tthe lawyer will refer the work to one of their bigger law firm clients, (collect a referral fee for this) and do the work at their normal rate. Similarly, if the client wants to pay lower fees the lawyer can refer the matter to a smaller client, again collect a referral fee, and do the work charging their normal rate. The client gets the same expert either way but gets to choose whether to use a large branded law firm or a smaller, cheaper one. The lawyer has none of the headaches about professional indemnity insurance, being covered by the insurance policy of the firm they are contracting through. Their hourly rate is low enough to be affordable by either large law firms or smaller ones.
    The wrong choice of business model underlies many of the problems solos face. Increasingly in the UK it is more and more expensive to operate as a solicitor because you have to afford the regulatory overheads being piled up on law firms. If they have other skills, such as being patent attorneys, then it’s easy enough for them to continue to practice and drop their solicitor tittle. But many solicitors want to be able to contintue practising as solicitors.
    The time for running a lifeystyle law practice is coming to an end. Unless you’re sure you’ve got a unique business proposition to offer clients don’t set up your own law firm. The promise of lower fees and a more personal service, which you may or may not be able to deliver on, is increasingly not enough of a difference to sustain a solo practice. Hence many of them fall into the trap of bashing big law firms in a bid to win work, instead of looking at their own offering and considering whether it is compelling enough.

  • What bothers me most is the assumption underlying most of these comments that solos and small firms are somehow a “budget” option. Eric mentions that small firms are valuable for conflict work. Carolyn extols the lower cost of small firms. Shireen says solos can make more by charging less.

    Why are solos and small firms worth less? Many of the solos or small firms I know are outstanding lawyers, and not necessarily cheap, either. Perhaps they follow a law practice maxim I take to heart: never compete on price.

    I do not want my small firm to be seen as a “budget” option. I want it to be seen as a better option.

  • Sam, you are correct that the focus should not be on price, but value – and I am often prone to collapsing the two. Small firms should offer better value because that is the only way to get in the door. However, price is part of the value proposition, which is one reason why corporate clients are turning to smaller firms: better value for the (lower) price.
    However, there’s also a difference between a so-called “good bargain” firm that competes with biglaw, versus firms that compete for consumer clients. There’s a big difference between charging $300-$350/hour (which is the rate for most of the solos I know (outside of the NY market) myself included, who compete with biglaw) to a corporate or municipal client – which is a bargain compared to going rates of $500+ versus charging $100/hour to gain an edge over other lawyers who serve consumer populations. (And of course, the better approach might be to ditch the hourly rate entirely and come up with a flat fee). Even Virtual Law Partners – a firm of biglaw expatriates touts its lower billing rates in comparison to large firms, and I’d hardly say that they are regarded as a lowbrow or budget option –