As a legal professional, you’ve probably heard the term “boutique law firm” many times. You may have also noticed more and more lawyers choosing to work at—or run—boutique law firms. But what is spurring the increasing interest in boutique law firms vs. Big Law? Could a smaller, boutique law firm be a good fit for your future?
In this post, we’ll discuss what a boutique law firm is (and what it isn’t) and explore the differences between boutique and Big Law firms. We’ll also lay out some of the benefits of working at a boutique firm and why you might consider running a smaller firm.
The definition of a boutique law firm varies. However, a boutique law firm is typically a small law firm of under 20 attorneys. In addition to being small in size, boutique firms usually offer legal services in select or niche practice areas. According to Willie Peacock, Esq., boutique law firms tend to offer more specialized services, highly experienced staff, and have a shorter client list.
What is the difference between boutique law firms vs. Big Law?
Their names say it all: The most obvious difference between Big Law and boutique law firms comes down to size. Boutique firms are smaller and more specialized. Big Law firms are larger in terms of the number of employees and lawyers, and in the wide array of legal services they offer.
Key areas where boutique and Big Law firms differ include:
- Staff size. Boutique firms have fewer people on staff than Big Law firms. Generally, boutique firms employ lawyers, paralegals, and law clerks. In contrast, Big Law firms also have administrative teams.
- Range of legal services. Large law firms are structured to cast a wide net strategically, offering a range of legal services to clients. Conversely, small boutique firms offer services in more concentrated areas.
- Lawyer experience. At Big Law firms, levels of experience tend to be mixed as less-experienced attorneys work their way up. Because boutique firms are more concentrated, the principal attorneys need to be more experienced with a high level of knowledge in the firm’s practice area(s).
- Client selection. Boutique law firms tend to be more selective when taking on clients than Big Law firms. Because boutique practices have a more concentrated focus, not all clients will be a good fit.
What are the benefits of working in a boutique law firm?
The goal of young attorneys used to be straightforward: Finish law school and land a role at a Big Law firm. But with the world moving to more remote work, advancements in legal technology, and a greater focus on attorneys’ work-life balance, the goals of many legal professionals have shifted. While working for a Big Law firm still carries a certain amount of prestige, for some attorneys, the benefits of working in a boutique law firm outweigh the thrill of a Big Law business card. Here are a few:
1. Targeted focus
Are you passionate about and do exceptional work in a certain area of the law? If so, choosing a legal niche and working at a boutique law firm in that area can bring you great satisfaction and opportunities to develop and grow your career.
2. Increased impact on the firm’s direction
At a smaller, boutique practice, it’s easier to have your voice heard when it comes to business decisions that impact the firm.
3. More flexibility with fees
When you’re offering a higher level of expertise and client service, you can set your fees to reflect that level of service. Moreover, smaller boutique firms generally have more flexibility with what they charge. This means you could offer alternative fee structures when it comes to law firm pricing.
Read more about pricing and payment models for small law firms with this guide to effective small law firm management.
4. Stronger client relationships
As mentioned, one of the big differences between Big Law and boutique firms is that boutique firms tend to be more selective when taking on clients. With fewer cases to manage and a more specific client base, lawyers at boutique firms can focus more on delivering personalized, client-centered service to the clients that they can help best.
Why should you run a boutique law firm?
If you’re thinking of starting a boutique law firm or rebranding your legal practice, there are many factors to consider. Here are four reasons why you might consider running a boutique law firm:
1. You’re entrepreneurial.
If you have an entrepreneurial spirit and are willing to take on the work that comes with running a law firm, you can create a small, focused legal practice in your vision with a boutique law firm.
Take the case of Cynthia Morgan-Reed, who left the traditional law firm path after two decades to start her small virtual firm, Vanst Law. By starting her practice, Cynthia could then develop a new business model—and create the flexible, equitable law firm she wanted to work at herself.
2. You have a lot of experience.
If you have a lot of experience in a specific area, a boutique law firm could be a good fit. With a boutique law firm, your clients can benefit from your expertise. In exchange, you’ll be able to do work that you find meaningful and interesting.
It’s important to note that a boutique law firm is usually made up of more experienced lawyers. Because boutique law firms are small and focused on specific areas of law, they tend to work best when helmed by lawyers with a great deal of experience to offer.
3. Lower costs.
While the concept of a boutique law firm may sound expensive, the cost of running a boutique firm can be lower than a traditional, larger firm. Because boutique firms are smaller, there’s generally lower overhead, personnel, and administrative costs. You can also keep firm costs down by being more efficient by using tech tools.
4. Today’s technology can help.
In the past, working at a Big Law firm meant you wouldn’t have to worry about time-consuming administrative tasks that are required to run a law firm. But by using the right tech tools for lawyers, smaller firms can cut down significantly on manual administrative work—even without the help of a Big Law admin team.
As Kate Colleary of Dublin’s Colleary & Co. explains, for example, using Clio’s legal practice management software to simplify administrative work made it easier to open her firm specializing in intellectual property and privacy/data protection.
Here are a few examples of tools that could make running a boutique firm more efficient:
- Practice management: Legal practice management software like Clio Manage automates day-to-day administrative tasks, simplifies billing, and keeps cases organized.
- Client intake: Clio Grow’s client intake software automates the client intake process and redundant tasks like email followups and data entry. With Clio Grow, small law firms can save time while providing clients with a more streamlined client experience.
- Receptionist services. A small law firm may not have an in-house receptionist but can still ensure that client calls are answered with the help of a virtual receptionist service.
Learn more about how to choose the best tech tools for your firm.
A boutique law firm may be right for you
Whether you’re thinking about taking your legal career in a new direction or you’re wondering if you should rebrand your law firm, boutique law firms are a viable option to consider.
Boutique law firms are small and more focused on specific practice areas. While that narrow focus may seem limiting when compared to the broader catch-all approach of Big Law firms, that tight focus can offer several benefits. These benefits include freedom for experienced lawyers to build expertise, exceptional client experiences, and the opportunity to run a more nimble, entrepreneurial business. And, because today’s legal technology removes many of the administrative barriers that existed in the past, small firms can run effectively and efficiently without a large staff on payroll.
Note: The information in this article applies only to US practices. This post is provided for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal, business, or accounting advice.