If you’re an attorney working in BigLaw – you may be interested to know that one leading legal industry consultant believes you could earn more in a boutique law firm.

George Beaton, head of Australia’s Beaton Research + Consulting recently made this point in a comment to a blopost he’d written about new law firm business models: “Many [BigLaw partners], perhaps half, could earn more than they do now and more easily in their own boutique law firm. Witness the growing trend to boutiques: White, Ryan, Banki Haddock Fiora. This is back-to-the-cottage and a return to true professionalism for true advisors” Beaton outlined. Indeed, The Lawyer reported earlier this year on some highly successful moves some attorneys have made in going from BigLaw to boutique. 

BigLaw challenges making boutiques more attractive

The issue of whether BigLaw attorney’s may want to transition to boutiques is coming at a time – not coincidentally – when challenges to the BigLaw business model are coming from a variety of places. Economic turbulence, the rise of legal process outsourcers and alternative business structures in the UK. As well as the rising tide of social media savvy boutique lawyers who are leveraging the internet to become experts in anything from China-US cross-border advisement to virtual trusts and estates practitioners. In a recent article that should make BigLaw attorneys sit up and really take notice – Harvard Business Review recently reported on the trend for in-house counsel to put less weight on law firm pedigree when making hiring decisions.

Overall, boutiques appear to represent at least a very credible alternative to BigLaw attorneys seeking not only a credible income alternative – but a lifestyle one as well.

What can you expect from a move from BigLaw to a boutique?

The core differentiator between BigLaw and boutique appears to be the clear entry into running a small business – requiring all the skills a small business owner might take on – as opposed to BigLaw which requires less in most cases.

The key challenges new boutique managing partners face was captured exceptionally well in a blogpost written by Fareya Azfar, Managing Partner of TLG law firm in the United Arab Emirates. In June of this year she wrot a blogpost about her experiences as a new boutique law firm managing partner – in which she wrote:

“Next month, it will be three years since I jumped out of initial career blues straight into the position of an elected managing partner of ‘my’ law firm, as I call it today. As I look back, it does not really surprise me how I accepted this role because I’ve always been bold and embraced Intellectually or emotionally overwhelming challenges.

So I would like to go back to my memory lane, and consider what worked, and what did not. What happened as I predicted or hoped, and what was unexpected…

  1. Managing Partners have no job description – this was one easy to guess you would think? Well, I didn’t google all this before taking on the role, rather I rolled with the experience.
  2. Acted as interim head of client relations management, interim finance manager, interim business development head, interim marketing head, interim rainmaker, interim head of HR and of course, how can I forget the fax, document and front desk handling tasks.
  3. So I set up the policies and procedures of all these departments, draft internal templates, work-flow charts and start the horrifying recruitment procedures. Maybe I am one of the few unlucky employers who came across so many lawyers with no ‘passion’ for law, as it’s a job to practice law and it’s not a way of life. Fresh grads were far more motivated than the experienced ones out there, but neither were quite smart or witty. So what did I do? I fired nearly half of them in less than six months. But, today we have a strength of 50 employees, and a 98% retention rate since past one year. Yes, only one employee left in past 12 months.
  4. Then lets get to the client-case management softwares, billing, time-keeping and update softwares that I employed and not to mention ‘trained’ people to use.
  5. I think the only aspect of my job that I found unexciting was to slow down myself to share the speed of my team. It took some time to learn to tolerate all those factors and individuals that slowed me down at many points.
  6. Did I mention I also head the Arbitration and ADR practice group? and specialize in construction and infrastructure projects? and of course the real estate industry, the bread and butter of all UAE lawyers. Yes, I have an arrogant streak, I am my best critic and my best supporter.”

Azfar concluded: “But my most positive experience was that hard work ‘pays off’ and it pays of fast ! For many lawyers may disagree, but my efforts were recognized and rewarded first and foremost by TLG’s clientele – Then I knew, clients make the firm and make you who you are as a lawyer. The referrals, the admiration, a good word of mouth and all those encouraging words.”

Is a boutique right for you?

As Fareya Azvar outlines – heading up a boutique law firm is heavy on administration, HR, technology – and I would argue most importantly – business development. But important to keep in mind is: Best practices in business development used by BigLaw can be adopted and implemented – even improved upon – by the head of a new boutique law firm.

So while there is – as George Beaton outlined – opportunity for success in a boutique – there are also the challenges Ms. Azvar met and matched. So for anyone reading this who might be in BigLaw and considering a move to a boutique – I hope this post might prove helpful in letting you know the income opportunity exists in boutiques – but the challenges can be overcome with determination and a good understanding of how best to put in place a system to operate a boutique profitably and efficiently. 


Posted by John Grimley

John Grimley edits and publishes Asia Law Portal. An independent writer & editor, he's the author of: A Comprehensive Guide to the Asia-Pacific Legal Markets (Ark Group 2014).

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