Excellent non-Biglaw firm litigators can represent almost any client, of any size, in any matter, anywhere in the world, at least as well as so-called Biglaw. But law firm managers need to run their firms right to make this happen.
Ever since at least the financial crisis of 2007 and beyond, it’s become commonplace to say that big law firms are on the decline and smaller firms are on the up and up. As someone fortunate enough to be a manager and partner at a boutique law firm, this, of course, sounds great. Let’s get those great cases that, at one time, only the bigger firms could handle.
But saying it does not make it so. Management matters. A great small firm can provide all the service of a huge firm in virtually all litigation matters (and provide the benefits of a smaller shop), as long as the small firm manages its resources – people, technology, and even small size – in the right way. And lawyers will need to assure the clients that their needs are being addressed.
(One important note: while I try to write this column to apply to any law office, private or public, litigation or transactional, here I can only write about boutique litigation firms. I suspect a lot of what I write here applies to our transactional colleagues, but do not have the experience to comment adequately.)
Any litigator knows that above a minimal level, the amount of damages in question will not matter for how, in the ideal, a litigation should be handled. I’ve found that there’s often not a tremendous amount of difference in the number of witnesses or amount of actual, needed evidence involved in a dispute of $50,000, $500,000, $5 million, or even $50 million.
Sure, there are more documents in bigger cases and everyone is willing to spend more money – better experts, better adversaries, and so forth. But the actual facts in dispute and actual relevant law and actual evidence that really matters can look very similar across disputes with very different sought-after damages.
This means that most disputes should be handled by a small team – two to three primary lawyers and one to two non-lawyer professionals like legal analysts or paralegals. That’s it. You absolutely will have others jump in during busy times. And non-team members are the best for proofreading filings and to act as devil’s advocates. But even the biggest matter can be handled by a small team and, indeed, should be. This is why a small law office can handle a monstrous matter typically reserved for a large law firm.
When you have a large document review, though, you often need outside help. But it’s there. You don’t need 100 associates on staff jumping from document review project to document review project. There are companies that do this all the time at least in part because, unfortunately, there are way too many lawyers on the street without steady law office jobs. The reviewers that do this all the time are quite good and will save your clients money.
But coordinating a small sophisticated practice requires mindful management. Managers need to ensure the teams are composed of the right number of senior lawyers, the right number of non-senior lawyers, and others. The non-lawyers need adequate daily supervision. And a manager needs to step in to determine when to get that outside help like those reviewers, or to tap into the network of colleagues to discuss the matter.
The legal technology world is a different planet than it was ten years ago, even five. Smaller firms can use litigation support technology to leverage their size, maintaining truly paperless filing systems, keyword-searching documents rather than employing more staff to search and organize, and maintaining security and backups with relatively inexpensive programs. Technology also allows smaller firms to do a lot of that document review I just mentioned through use of in-house IT.
But, again, managers need to be mindful when selecting that technology. Not all programs are alike. I’ve learned that no matter what the promises of the salespeople, many programs have kinks that will always need to be worked out. And programs do not take the place of thoughtful organization or creativity.
MANAGING SMALLER SIZE
Smaller law firms are lean, have enormously more camaraderie, and generally have far better and more diversely experienced (and, thus, simply better) staff.
But small law firms do not have lots of bodies. Managers must be thoughtful on at least a weekly and, more likely, daily basis about how staff and resources are used so all matters are handled as they should be.
Simply considering some examples: junior staff need to know how to handle it when they have too many assignments; lawyers need to know how to supervise non-lawyers daily; all staff need to know how to share documents and information, including deadlines.
The solutions to these and related small-firm management concerns regarding people, technology, small size, and more are too many to address in any depth here. What I want to be clear on is that boutique firms provide huge benefits – both to clients with large-scale disputes, and for the staff that work in service to those clients. At the same time, boutique firm managers must also be aware of the special needs and pitfalls of not having 100 people around to handle anything that comes up, or, in most cases, decades or a century of history behind the current firm.
When managed right, boutique firms are just as effective as Biglaw.
John Balestriere is an entrepreneurial trial lawyer who founded his firm after working as a prosecutor and litigator at a small firm. He is a partner at trial and investigations law firm Balestriere Fariello in New York, where he and his colleagues represent domestic and international clients in litigation, arbitration, appeals, and investigations. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.
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