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Why More Attorneys Are Leaving the Big Firms

Bigger might be better in some things in life, but not necessarily when it comes to employment opportunities for attorneys.

Small law firms are coming up big as places for lawyers to find work, according to a recent article on Law Crossing. The article cited the National Association of Law Placement as saying small law firms are providing “the majority of law firm jobs taken by recent graduates.”

Economic uncertainties continue to inject volatility in the legal landscape, making large law firms wary of over-hiring. There is also tremendous fear the number of clients capable of affording or willing to pay big firm rates is dwindling.

Meanwhile, there continues to be an escalating need for legal services among the general population, who not only can’t afford huge hourly fees but who are also uncomfortable in the swanky downtown offices of The Bigs. So where do these clients turn? Small law firms or solo practitioners whose rates are usually lower than those charged by big law firms and whose lawyers are generally more accessible.

View from the Trenches

Joseph Dreitler didn’t always practice law in the small firm setting. In fact, he spent 17 years in-house at Procter & Gamble and Anheuser-Busch and another 14 toiling in various large, general practice firms. However, for the past four years, he has practiced law in a two-person trademark, copyright and patent law firm in Columbus, Ohio. The namesake of Dreitler True says his current situation is “the most fun” he’s had while practicing law, for a few reasons.

They include:

  • Lack of bureaucracy
  • No conflicts of interest
  • Lower overhead
  • The lower fees he can charge due to reduced overhead costs
  • No need to try and ‘leverage’ associates to bring in revenue for the firm

Dreitler also relishes the fact he doesn’t feel pressured to bill an astronomical number of hours yearly like he did when he worked in a big firm. Something else he doesn’t miss about big firm life is partners who are supposed to behave like a team but who are really out for their own best interests.

“I don’t feel the disappointment in other partners not cross-selling my services to their client,” he says, adding that in every firm he worked, the consistent mantra was that everyone was on the same team. However, eventually Dreitler became dismayed when he finally realized that was not really the case in any of the firms where he worked. “Partners hoarded work. They did not want any other partner to even meet their clients for fear they would screw something up. Partners who had no idea of the difference between a trademark and a copyright would take on that kind of work and never call partners who specialized in that work because they wanted the hours and could care less about the clients getting the most qualified lawyers on the matter,” Dreitler laments.

Early in Evan Schwartz’s legal career, he was a small fish in a very large pond. In actuality, he was more like a guppy in a huge sea of the gigantic law firm where he worked for several years. In those days, he toiled in a firm with 300 to 500 lawyers nationwide. When he left, he was a solo practitioner for a time. His firm grew to ten lawyers, including a law partner, but today he is the namesake of Schwartz Law PC.

His firm, with offices in Manhattan and Garden City, NY, is comprised of six lawyers whose work focuses on disability law and other insurance-related matters. There are several aspects of practicing in the small firm setting that Schwartz finds appealing. He enjoys the collegiality of working in a small group, which also means attorneys have the opportunity to accept greater responsibility for their cases and clients than occurs in large firms.

“Large firms can also be collegial but are frequently more regimented and both pay and responsibility are typically more lockstep,” says Schwartz. Like Dreitler and Schwartz, Caroline Z. Worley didn’t always practice law in the small firm setting. After the namesake of Worley Law LLC, a small firm in Westerville, Ohio, graduated law school, she toiled as a staff attorney for a Common Pleas Judge.

Following that, she joined a large law firm in Columbus. Since then, everywhere she has practiced law has employed five or fewer lawyers. Worley cites the “team and family atmosphere” with all employees, both attorneys as staff, as what she enjoys most about the small firm setting.

She also relishes the lack of bureaucracy and the flexibility that working in a small group engenders. “Also, since our overhead is lower, an attorney can offer the same or better services for half the cost. There is also plenty of time to get out and serve on nonprofit boards and to give back by volunteering your time,” she says.

Those experiences differ greatly from what she underwent in the big firm setting. For example, “you usually have to run all ideas up a chain of command and change is harder and slower,” she laments. Working for a small firm, especially her own, offers Worley the flexibility to work different hours and at locations other than her brick-and-mortar location.

Pitfalls of Small-Firm-Life

While all three lawyers agree their professional lives are happier as small firm attorneys, they do admit there are pitfalls to working in such an environment. For Worley, working with a small “marketing and business development budget” is challenging. She would also like to hire additional support staff, but that is cost-prohibitive.

While he wouldn’t trade his current situation for a return to big-firm life, Schwartz says there are challenges working in a small firm. For example, the small firm scenario affords “less predictability of the business,” he says. In other words, says Schwartz, running a small firm is “more risky.”

Another pitfall of the solo and small firm environment is that, typically, attorneys receive less training before they are thrown into the fire. According to Schwartz, there is “typically less training and supervision, which can be exhilarating or disastrous, depending on the person you are and the particular circumstances of the matters you are handling.”

While certainly no one is saying Big Law is dead, there is no doubt small and solo law practices are gaining increasingly popularity among lawyers. At least that’s what Schwartz thinks. “In general, small firms help make the legal system more accessible to the general public by offering lower fees and more direct contact between attorneys and their clients. When I weighed the pros and cons of big firm life versus working in a small firm, I decided I wanted to own my own firm and control my own destiny. I have more autonomy and greater job security because I develop my own book of business,” Schwartz says.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.

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