Challenging Biglaw: How Small Firms Attract Talent On A Tight Budget

The image of David versus Goliath is frequently evoked in legal arguments. This metaphor is used in the first line of a suit against McDonalds, in the tag line for the Institute of Justice, and in myriad legal publications, such as Jewell v. NBC and the Basics of Defamacast in Georgia. The same image that is used to describe court cases is also used to describe the firms defending them, specifically large corporate law practices. Nowadays, there’s conflict between those who see big as bad and others who view big as better.    

Such is the subject in of an article in Above The Law, featuring Steven Harper, a Kirkland & Ellis partner who teaches a Northwestern University class titled “American Lawyers—Demystifying the Profession.” In his class, as in his numerous publications, Harper analyzes attorney unhappiness and law students’ unhealthy obsession with large firms. Decidedly not Texan, both Harper and the Above The Law author seem to agree that Biglaw is the root of much associate unhappiness—high billable hours and low compensation in terms of the number of attorneys made partner.  

At the end, the article issues a challenge to small firms across the nation. It asks, “What options are there for promising graduates other than Biglaw? What advantages do you offer to talented attorneys?” A portion of the answer is listed below.  

Flexible Working Hours. Offering flexible schedules or telecommuting options is a cost-free benefit for firms and has been shown to increase productivity. With fewer associate timesheets to keep track of, small firms excel at offering unique working hours for attorneys with young families, long commutes, or simply a green state of mind (see Apple Not Green, But You Can Be). Biglaw outshines its competition in terms of mass training, office policies, standards, and consistency. One thing it finds difficult to offer, however, is an exception.  

Location. Smaller-sized firms require smaller-sized offices. This flexibility in location options often leads to lower rent and sometimes a more unique space. For example, a small firm can take advantage of the building or office for rent at the base of a ski slope or next to an urban park. It can situate itself in the center of a city, instead of the suburb. When first-years spend over 2,000 hours each year in the office, it’s not surprising that location plays an important role in their decision of choosing a law firm.  

Youth. A large firm typically indicates a long history. The experience of older attorneys is certainly valuable, but small firms have the drive and of enthusiasm of youth on its side. Younger firms are more open to risk and thus more motivated to succeed. When you know the intimate details of each employee’s family background, financial history, and future plans, winning attorneys fees in a court case suddenly becomes personal. Additionally, younger firms are more familiar with the new technology vital to the modernizing industry of litigation. For the best and brightest law firm graduates, enthusiasm, gadgets, and a general openness to fresh ideas are more attractive than grey-haired men in last-year’s suits.  

Profit-Sharing Programs. If all else fails, money talks. While larger firms are stuck fighting internal red tape, smaller firms are giving attorneys a stake in the business. Not only is this an added draw to the firm, but studies show profit-sharing programs (like the one at Google) incentivize employees to be more efficient with their time and more productive in their work. 

Training Opportunities. Finally, small firms can spend one-on-one mentorship time with every new associate. For the eager law school graduate who earned top grades, professional development, high-level responsibility, and courtroom experience during his or her first five years is a dream come true. So, when compared to the excessive doc review at Biglaw, a job with a small firm suddenly looks like the more promising career path.

The question of whether or not big is better will continue to be asked. And the answer, for each attorney, will continue to differ.




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