Choosing Lawyers Based on Firm Size

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We’re always interested in helping people find the best lawyers for their case. Last week, we asked about legal specialties. This week, we’re curious to find out more about firm size. Just as with specialties, firm sizes and styles have an enormous range of variance. From international institutions with hundreds of attorneys to single room operations with a lone ranger of justice, firms are just as diverse as the lawyers who practice in them.

Why We’re Asking:

We know that big firms are often more competitive and fast-paced than smaller firms. Whereas small firms usually are slower-paced and more personable. But in the end, it is most important to choose a lawyer who will win your case. We wonder if the size of the firm has anything to do with success in the courtroom. We’re turning to our panel of lawyers to find out more.

So it’s time to weigh in:

How Important is Firm Size when Choosing a Lawyer?

Should I seek out a large firm or a small solo practice?

What are the advantages of each?

What are the disadvantages of each?

Is a middle of the road, smaller firm the best of both worlds?

What about firm types? LLPs? LLCs? General partnerships? Is one better than the other?

Check back throughout the week to see our lawyer’s comments!

Post your answers in the comment field below!

12 COMMENTS

  1. I am currently a partner in a three-lawyer firm that focuses in the areas of
    civil litigation and estate planning. I spent 9+ years practicing at large
    multinational firms with 500+ lawyers, so I have seen both sides of the
    aisle.

    The reality is that the average person cannot afford to hire a large firm.
    But even if money is no object, hiring a large firm is entirely unnecessary
    for most common legal matters, such as real estate closings and simple
    estate planning.

    For any matter, the most important thing is to find a lawyer with specific
    experience in the area of practice that you need. Although it can be
    difficult to determine a lawyer’s level of experience during an initial
    interview, the potential client should try to determine whether the lawyer
    can provide specific answers to questions about the matter or is merely
    talking in generalities, the latter of which may signal a lack of in-depth
    knowledge concerning the subject matter. Obviously, the ability of a lawyer
    to effectively communicate with the client is also very important.

    The business form of the law firm (LLPs, LLCs, general partnership) is
    completely irrelevant to the quality of the lawyers at the firm.

  2. I have litigated employment law cases for 17 years, and I can tell you
    that most employers are best served when hiring an employment practices
    boutique firm. I’ve recommended the firms from http://www.worklaw.com to our
    members for many years. As a former plaintiff’s lawyer I felt larger firms
    spend more of an effort figuring out how much they can bill on a case rather
    than trying to get it resolved.

  3. 1. What about firm types? LLPs? LLCs? General partnerships? Is one better than the other?

    Generally speaking there is no difference for the client. The type of organization matters typically only to the lawyers and to the government.

    2. Should I seek out a large firm or a small solo practice? What are the advantages of each? What are the disadvantages of each?

    Depends on who you ask. It is a complicated, loaded question and everyone has their bias. But it really depends on what you need. Is this a will or litigation?

    Big companies often like big firms. They have big cases and lots of people they can throw at a problem. If their client has a complicated issue that involves multiple areas, chances are better that lots of eyes on the matter will uncover different issues and will have someone in house that can handle it. Downside is that they have big overheard and big bills.

    Smaller firms tend to focus their practice on specific areas. They tend to be better in that one area than the a jack-of-all trades can be.

    Boutique firms tend to tailor their practice to fit the needs to their clients. For example, we handle only consumer protection cases, and a narrow breadth of those even. Routinely we have successful outcomes for our clients against large firms, but we handle only a limited area of the law.

    3. Is a middle of the road, smaller firm the best of both worlds?

    When people say “Solo” they usually mean small firm. Couple of guys working together is more typical than a lone ranger out there, and that is versus 10-ish attorneys versus a mega firm. Experience in your area of need trumps everything else every time.

  4. Most people cannot afford a large firm. Even if they can, they generally will end up spending more money on a large firm than a small one. A small firm should operate more efficiently and have lower overhead, allowing it to charge lower rates.

    The advantage of a big firm is one stop shopping. If you have a wide range of legal issues a large firm may be able to handle all of it. Small firms frequently specialize in a few areas.

    In any matter, clients need to find a lawyer who he or she can work with and who knows the area of law for the particular matter. This also has to be balanced against potential fees. An expert who charges $500 an hour might be great, but someone who has a little less expertise, but can learn the area and whose rate is $250 an hour can be a better choice. That person might be hungrier for your work and willing to go through the learning curve for free.

    The structure of the firm (LLP, LLC, etc) is meaningless.

  5. Having worked at a large firm for 7 years, and having been at a small firm for 13 years, I am happy to weigh in.

    Q. What should Clients Consider when Choosing a Specialty Lawyer?

    A. The lawyer’s background, experience with the relevant type of work you need done, geographic location, state bar admissions, hourly rates or fees, references, style and personality.

    Q. Should I seek out a large firm or a small solo practice?

    A. That depends on many factors. There are a few projects that may require a big firm — maybe something that would require dozens of attorneys to work on it, although the best smaller firms can handle those projects, too. Many small projects or tasks do not merit the extremely high hourly rates at larger firms. So, the size of the project and the type of expertise required are important factors. Generally, however, smaller firms can do everything that a larger firm does, and at dramatically lower hourly rates. Larger firms can do it all, too. Larger firms may have offices all over the country and the world, and in some cases or some relationships, it is important for a client to have representation in multiple locations. That is a matter of individual preference, really. Our firm is relatively small (about 14 attorneys), and we have only one office, but we practice labor and employment law, representing employers all over the U.S.

    Q. What are the advantages of each?
    A. Small firms are generally less expensive, more efficient, and more responsive. The good ones are just as expert and detail-oriented as the best big firm lawyers. Big firms have a broader range of expertise, often including attorneys who have done the exact same type of work many times. While this can be more efficient, big firms also typically put more lawyers on a project than smaller firms, and the big firm expert is likely to have junior associates doing a lot of the actual work. As a result, there can be a loss in efficiency and/or a diminished relationship with the lawyer who was hired to do the work.

    Q. What are the disadvantages of each?
    A. Small firms will not have the same breadth of expertise as larger firms. Larger firms are more expensive and can be less responsive.

    Q. Is a middle of the road, smaller firm the best of both worlds?
    A. We like to think so. We believe that our firm represents a mix of the best of both worlds. We are attorneys who were trained at big firms, which is generally considered to be the best training — junior attorneys are taught and mentored by experienced senior associates and partners. Small firm training is typically “trial by fire,” which means junior attorneys at many small firms have to figure it out on their own. (We typically do not hire attorneys out of law school; we hire attorneys who were already trained at big firms, generally.) So, we function much like a big firm, even though we are a small boutique firm. We offer equal or better quality of work product, with better service, at better rates. And there are many other boutiques out there, like ours, staffed by attorneys who did not want to work big firm hours, and who did not need big firm salaries to live a happy productive life.

    Q. What about firm types? LLPs? LLCs? General partnerships? Is one better than the other?
    A. I don’t think that makes much difference. The key is whether the personalities and management structure create a good culture for the attorneys and staff, and whether that translates to the clients in a positive way. Any corporate entity (LLC vs. LLP vs. PC, etc.) can achieve excellent results..

  6. First of all, with regards to what the client should look for in choosing a “specialty lawyer”, I would say the credentials and experiences of the attorney in the area involved. With regards to certain specialties, such as tax, it is usually extremely beneficial when the representative has prior government experience. The inside knowledge obtained working for the IRS, for example, is invaluable in tax representation. It is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain such institutional knowledge if the attorney had never worked for the government.

    With regards to a large firm vs. a small firm or solo practice, the key is finding the firm that focuses on the specific issue. Rather than looking at it as a “small firm”, the question is, is it a boutique firm? A small firm may try to be a “jack of all trades” and a general practice. This is extremely difficult since there is such a wide array of areas of law. It is like going to a foot doctor for a problem with your eyes. If there is a boutique firm that focuses solely on a specific area, they will have the experience in that area and be updated on all of the relevant legal issues involved in that area of practice. A mid size to larger firm may lose this focus. On the other hand, very large firms often have different departments that are like boutiques within the large firm. Many clients, however, would prefer the smaller boutique firm because more often they will be dealing with partners with many years of experience rather than relatively new associates that a larger firm may tend to utilize. Whether it is a boutique firm or a large firm with specialized departments, the key is to determine whether they have the experience and resources to handle the specific matter at issue. A boutique firm with 5-20 attorneys would generally have the resources to provide the representation necessary, but not lose the personal relationship with the client. Since the firm, being a boutique practice, can focus in a specific area of practice, again their resources will likewise be focused and the benefit to the client should be maximized.

    With regards to the firm type, LLPs, LLCs or general partnerships, I do not see how the legal structure of the firm has any impact on the quality of representation to the client.

  7. What should Clients Consider when Choosing a Specialty Lawyer?

    It is important to know that just like doctors, attorneys, particularly in
    a large firm develop specialties, usually along the lines of a litigator
    (goes to court) or transactional (drafts contracts and negotiates), as well
    as criminal law and business (or family) issues. So, it is important that
    a “specialty” attorney have a certain degree of familiarity with what a
    client requires. For example, in the area of “entertainment” attorney,
    there are actually many “sub” specialties, such as expertise in the music
    industry, or live theater, film (which can be further categorized into
    “major” and “indie”), or dance, etc…

    Should I seek out a large firm or a small solo practice?

    This depends on the individuals involved in either of these practices, and
    the scope of different expertise required by a client. The broader the
    scope, the more likely a larger firm would be preferred. However, larger
    firms are much like “teaching hospitals” who delegate much of the basic
    work to new associates who are training on the job and charging the client
    for the privilege.

    What are the advantages of each?

    Often, a larger firm appears to carry more weight and prestige on behalf of
    its client. In addition, its resources should in theory be more wide and
    comprehensive than a smaller firm. A smaller firm will generally provide
    more personal attention to a less “important” client, and be less expensive
    with possibly more efficient outcome in some cases.

    What are the disadvantages of each?*
    In a larger firm, it is easier to get “lost” or neglected in certain
    circumstances, and to be charged at higher rates, and by more attorneys
    working on your matter. In a smaller firm, you may not be getting exactly
    the right attorney for a particular matter.

  8. Choosing the size of the firm you want to work with is often a matter of what kind of case you have. For a vast majority of people, the only interaction they’ll ever have with the court system is divorce or other family law matter, a civil suit arising from a traffic accident, or a non-felony criminal matter. Most of the people who come to my office for help don’t even know where the county courthouse is located before their case begins.

    Because these “majority cases” tend to be personal rather than business related, clients are often looking for a personal touch without the ability to pay a lot of fees. Because of that, there are certainly a handful of large firms that handle these types of cases, but most of the attorneys in an area will be in small firms of 3 to 8 attorneys or true solo practitioners.

    The advantage of going with a large firm is coverage: a live person will always answer the phone; an attorney will always be available to attend your hearing, even if it’s someone you’ve never met; if your junior associate gets out of his or her depth, someone with more experience is in the next office over.

    The drawback, of course, is that with so many helping hands comes a fee for each. The legal assistant who talks to you about your case for half an hour is billed to you at his rate for a half an hour. The attorney who spends 10 minutes reading the notes the legal assistant wrote is billed to you at her rate for a quarter hour. She then spends an hour writing a letter based on the notes (that she re-read) 2 days later. You just paid for 1 and 1/4 of an hour of attorney time and 1/2 an hour of legal assistant time for a phone call and letter that could have been completed by one person in an hour if that person were an attorney.

    The advantage of going with a small firm or true solo practitioner is the personal connection. Your solo or small firm lawyer will remember your child’s name or why your business is looking to expand into a new warehouse without having to look it up in your file. They are also very likely to be more flexible with payment options, scheduling appointments outside of regular business hours, and being able to respond to new developments in your case on short notice in a way that an attorney who is a member of a large corporation may not because of company policies and culture.

    The disadvantage is that all of your small firm or solo attorney’s other clients are ALSO getting that personal touch and flexibility and there are only so many hours available in the day for it. It’s more likely that you’ll leave voicemails or messages with assistants more than once before getting an answer from an attorney who works alone or in a small firm because they are literally trying to be in two places at once.

    The “middle path” is the medium-sized firm only if the way the attorneys have structured their business gives you the best of both worlds: the coverage of the large firm and the personal touch of the smaller firm. Even when in practice together, attorneys tend to be independent, even territorial, when it comes to sharing client duties with other attorneys. In a larger mid-sized firm of 20 attorneys, it’s possible only two or three may actually have experience with the particular kind of representation a client needs. This is why interviewing attorneys by phone before hiring them is so important for potential clients – it lets you ask those kinds of questions before they become an issue in your own case.

    LLCs, LLPs, PCs – it doesn’t make much difference, so long as the company is actually a law firm. Over the past 10 years, many larger law firms have spun off consulting groups that are NOT law firms to handle other aspects of clients’ business.

  9. Should I seek out a large firm or a small solo practice?

    What are the advantages of each? Small firm usually means more personal service but some lawyers overload themselves and are more difficult to get on the phone than the big firms.Also small firm will usually charge a lot less unless the small firm is the spinoff from a larger firm. Small firm has limited resources for investigation whereas large firm, while they charge for it, have trained investigators who dig for the information you need.

    Is a middle of the road, smaller firm the best of both worlds? Size doesn’t enter into this picture unless the issue is political in which case the larger firm has the edge.

    What about firm types? LLPs? LLCs? General partnerships? Is one better than the other? No difference

  10. Should I seek out a large firm or a small solo practice?

    The size of the law firm you pick should be related to your needs. If you are a consumer needing assistance for one matter, then a local law firm will serve you best. If you are a large corporation when needs in a number of cities, then a large firm with branch offices in each location may better suit you.
    What are the advantages of each?

    Large law firms typically have many attorneys and support staff which practice a large variety of practice areas. You are going to pay more at a large firm, but it might be cost effective if your legal matter spans different substantive areas of law or geographic issues. Smaller firms are thought to be less expensive given less overhead and the ability to focus on a set number of practice areas. Additionally, you may get more personal attention at a small firm, whereas larger firms typically cater to large corporations and businesses.

    Is a middle of the road, smaller firm the best of both worlds?

    Mid-size firms offer the best of both worlds. Sufficient staff and attorneys to tackle large legal issues with a more personal approach than large firms. The cost will likely be less than large firms as well.

    What about firm types? LLPs? LLCs? General partnerships? Is one better than the other?

    The type of corporate vehicle of a firm is irrelevant to picking an attorney. While it may matter for the division of debt and assets of a partnership, it’s not going to matter to the client seeking legal services.

  11. I am a real estate lawyer and founding and senior partner with the law firm of Simpson, Foster & Gold which is headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.

    I can tell you a great deal about the advantages of small firms but have very little to say about the advantages of a large firm. An exception is if a client is a giant corporation that have so much litigation, contract work, etc… that it makes sense to have one firm handle everything.

    Generally speaking, the way big firms make their money is by hiring a large number of young attorneys that are paid less than the client is charged. There are generally a couple of very good and experienced attorneys that work in a large firm but unless a client is one of the largest that the firm has, the experienced attorneys are not the ones handling the case.

    Large firms generally have the “associates” handle the cases during the months leading up to trial, work up the case and then the “partner” comes in and pressures the client to settle..

    Big corporations are generally lead by people that go to the same clubs and belong to the same organizations as the partners in large law firms. It makes sense for them to send work to their friends and associates. For a small business owner or anyone spending their own money hiring a large lawfirm does not make a huge amount of sense..

    Many executives that choose large lawfirms for their companies choose smaller lawfirms for themselves.

  12. The biggest difference between a large and small firm is in the administration and not so much the quality of the actual lawyers. At a large firm, interns and paralegals shoulder a lot of the work that, at a smaller firm, the attorney would be doing themselves. At a really big firm, it may be difficult for a client to ever actually speak to their attorney. Large firms also tend to charge higher hourly rates based on their size, whereas at a smaller firm you can be pretty confident that higher rates are charged by attorneys who have more experience. Most legal issues, even if they feel like the center of someone’s life, can be handled just as competently by either type of firm. In terms of title, all you really need is an attorney who is licensed in your state. Anything else in the firm name really doesn’t matter.

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