Law Courthouse - Small Law Firms

Can Small Law Firms Compete?

Sure they can.

In fact, I would say now is their time, more than ever since the days of the small town lawyer.

Paul Bigler and Atticus Finch

Think of Paul Bigler in “Anatomy Of A Murder”-based on the case handled by real life lawyer and later Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker-who spent his time in roughly equal parts fishing, drinking and trying cases.

Or Atticus Finch, the fictional character in To Kill A Mockingbird, based on the character of Amasa Coleman Lee, a small town Alabama lawyer.

You get the idea.

And the idea being that there was once a time when lawyers loved their practices, and their clients, and often knew them well, because they were neighbors in small towns and villages.

And what those lawyers provided, more than anything…more than forms for wills or business organization…more than routine consumer or business transaction documents, was…

…judgment. And wisdom. And courage.

Those lawyers applied their legal training, study and life experiences to solve a problem, and were faced with one decision after another as to how best to move forward.

With no guaranty of success, and no one to tell them whether they were heading in the right direction, they thought through their problems, came to strategic decisions, and took action. The consequences of those decisions could be enormous. And life changing.

Isn’t that what we still do today? Isn’t that what we’re really paid for? Our value? No one but another lawyer can understand this lonesome obligation. We can consult our fellow lawyers, certainly, and it helps. But in the end, the advice given to the client is the lawyer’s, and the lawyer’s alone. It is either right or it is not. It either works or it doesn’t.

And that is what has been the unique province of lawyers for centuries.

The Rise of BigLaw

Gradually, the small town lawyer gave way to the business of law, where lawyers aggregated into larger firms to meet the demands of larger, more lucrative clients.

Why larger firms? Because larger clients with larger problems required more lawyer hours to handle their cases. And clients would seek out larger firms because only they, at that time, could handle the myriad of issues facing a large organization.

And of course, some part of this became a marketing game where corporate legal spend officers were courted by legal rainmakers with big marketing budgets for sports and golf outings, etc.

Unable to compete with those marketing budgets, and too short handed to handle major work even if they got it, smalls retreated to smaller clients, with smaller legal spend budgets.

And as market pressure forced BigLaw to shed lawyers to compete, the number of smalls grew.

Until eventually there were more smalls than work.

And some of that work became commoditized.

Which is where we are today.

Stripping Away The Gravy

Technology has decimated the work of lawyers whose value was limited to filling out forms. As Seth Godin says, when the ability to fill out those forms was scarce, lawyers who knew how to do it would profit. But we are no longer living in an age of scarcity, and lawyers who think they will continue to make a living filling out forms are going to be left behind. And he’s right. And by the way, you should listen to Seth’s interview on the subject of the future of law. My post below (“Seth Godin Is Right About The Future Of Law Practice”) has my summary and a link to it.

But replace judgment and wisdom? Not a chance. Filling out a form is one thing. Knowing which form to use, whether it should be used at all, whether it should be modified or rewritten altogether, or whether you’re even asking the right question, is another matter entirely.

Hello Technology. Hello NewLaw.
(And Welcome Back, Paul and Atticus)

And technology has changed the dynamic in terms of the ability to do the real work of the lawyer (analysis and judgment), and the ability to reach clients.

So today, a solo or small firm with a firm grasp on technology (this doesn’t mean you have to be a techie, believe me) and a network of lawyers he or she can trust, can punch well above their weight and compete toe to toe with BigLaw in many cases, as long as their practices are focused on the real value of judgment, wisdom and courage.

There are two primary cohorts in smalls today (firms with 1-5 lawyers).

The first is comprised of middle aged, experienced lawyers (49 years old on average).

The second is comprised of newer lawyers.

Both cohorts can thrive in the NewLaw. The seniors, through harnessing the ability to spread their unique expertise, wisdom and judgment.

And the juniors, through their comparatively superior command of those same communication channels, to fill in the experience gap through mentoring, or teaming with seniors on legal projects.

And they can do it all from a (virtual) small town office.

Too Many Lawyers?

Is there enough real legal work for all lawyers?

I’m not sure, but lawyers are not immune to market forces, and it will shake out, as does all value related work.

To the extent there is not enough work, lawyers are still uniquely trained to use their skill sets in many other endeavors. For this reason, whatever they do will put them at an advantage over their competition.

Or maybe just go fishing. Is it possible we’ve gotten a little caught up in materialism, with the concomitant necessity to max out on the hourly rate, or the number of billable hours?

I’ve read some of John Volker’s books on fly-fishing for trout. For all his success as a lawyer and justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, he spent a lot of time driving around in a stinky pickup truck, happily looking for trout ponds.

Maybe we should dial it back a bit. And think deeper about what we have to offer that will be useful.

Is this an exciting time to have a legal background, whether for a “small” law practice, business, causes, etc?

I believe it is.

And if what you want to do is practice law in a solo or small firm atmosphere (even though your reach could be global!), I say go for it. Thanks to technology and the connection economy, you should have a real shot at success.

And keep it all in perspective.




Dave has been a practicing lawyer for 30+ years, from inside and general counsel, to private practice.
He maintains a private practice as well as a consulting and copywriting business focused on professional services firms.
You can also find him on LinkedIn

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