When it comes to choosing a law firm, there are thousands of options available, whether you’re looking for a firm in your city or state, across the nation, or around the world. Too many people gravitate toward larger firms simply because they assume bigger is better. However, the advantages of smaller law firms offer tremendous benefits to those savvy enough to look beyond firm size.
One of the most common misconceptions is that the biggest law firms attract and retain the best lawyers. The truth is, talent-quality is spread throughout the industry. The best lawyers at large firms often strike out on their own to open their own offices, taking with them a small handful of highly capable peers and support staff. Today’s leading law school graduates, Millennials looking to make a difference rather than make a fortune, are narrowing their focus on one practice area and joining boutique firms rather than larger firms that tend to be full-service generalists. Other great lawyers simply want to get away from the “power track” of larger firms, choosing instead to hang their shingles somewhere that doesn’t require them putting in 60 hours every week.
The bottom line is, you can find great lawyers just about anywhere: in large firms, in boutique firms, and even solo practitioners. Some of the largest corporations are figuring this out and shifting their resources away from the bigger firms.
In an article for the American Bar Association, Pamela Bucy Pierson wrote: “For a variety of reasons…companies are expanding their in-house legal offices. As a result, companies have less need for large firms that can handle cases in multiple jurisdictions…. Growth of in-house counsel departments gives companies new flexibility to choose small law firms.”
It’s not just access to quality talent that’s helping smaller firms compete. Ms. Bucy Pierson also noted that technology has been instrumental in leveling the playing field, “allowing [smaller firms] to compete for large and complex cases that historically only large law firms, with their armies of lawyers and full service support, were able to provide.”
This is possible because economies of scale have shrunk. With the advancement of practice management software, digital payment systems, e-discovery, and AI applications for any number of legal activities, the cost of entry has become so approachable that even solo practitioners are able to take advantage of these technological efficiencies.
As you can see, great lawyers and cutting-edge technology are available everywhere. However, there are a number of advantages that smaller law firms actually do have over bigger firms.
Smaller firms charge less. According to a report from U.S. Consumer Law published in 2016, the average billable hour of an attorney at a smaller firm with more than 10 years of experience was $377. At a large firm, that same lawyer billed $473 per hour, with four-digit hourly rates becoming more and more common.
Larger firms may have the benefit of additional resources, but are they worth an extra $100 per hour to solve your specific legal issue? Bucy Pierson states many large firms have “priced themselves out of the market with high salaries, debt from commitments to expensive lateral hires, and large overhead costs because of offices located in pricey markets. This leaves opportunities for smaller, more financially nimble, firms to step in.” And they have. A report from Altman Weil showed 31% of Chief Legal Officers shifted legal work from higher-priced firms to lower-priced firms.
As mentioned in the previous section, larger firms are saddled with excessive overhead. That manifests in their hierarchy as well, requiring each case be reviewed by attorneys at multiple levels to ensure consistency within the firm. This overlap is all but eliminated at smaller firms whose greatest concern is getting the client’s matter resolved quickly, efficiently, and most beneficially.
Another example of efficiency in smaller firms is, because many lawyers handling cases are also running their firms, they have a more practical understanding of, and pay closer attention to, the firm’s profitability and financial management. This impacts the way they handle clients because they’re dealing with the same business realities that their clients are.
Smaller firms run lean as a matter of survival and that carries over to a more conscientious approach to customer service, thus minimizing the number of hours they bill. Big law firms tend to pressure associates to bill as many hours as possible, thus minimizing their incentive to be efficient.
When you combine cost and efficiency, smaller firms charge less per hour for fewer hours, a double win for their clients.
As a group, small and midsize law firms do a better job of meeting their clients’ most important service expectations. A survey published in January 2018, found the rate of client dissatisfaction was three times higher for larger law firms than smaller firms. Why? At a small firm, a client that generates $250,000 in fees is incredibly valuable. That same client might be “small potatoes” to a large firm and would likely be treated accordingly.
Big or small, every legal matter directly affects the client and the client’s company in a significant way. The relationships developed between a smaller firm and its clients take time and effort to nurture. Where smaller firms fight hard for each specific case, larger firms are frequently forced to initiate tried-and-true strategies that fail to take advantage of case nuances that can only come from a deeper knowledge of the client and the client’s business.
Though many big firms tout their “team” of lawyers as an advantage, it can also be a disadvantage. The more people there are working on a case the more opportunity there is for misunderstandings and fragmentation between team members. That can lead to errors and additional time to fix them.
One element of service that’s often overlooked is strategic flexibility. Being nimble and shifting gears when unforeseen events unfold can be the difference between winning and losing in many cases. One blog post offers this insight: “Smaller firms usually are able to make and manage significant strategic changes more efficiently, and often more successfully, than large firms. Part of this is because it is easier to turn a rowboat than an oil tanker.”
Regardless of the size of the law firm, one of the most important considerations in choosing a lawyer is your level of confidence and trust that your lawyer will represent you and your company well. However, the advantages of smaller law firms are indisputable. Small and midsize firms charge less, are more efficient, and are more client-centric while offering similar levels of legal acuity available at large firms. Their maneuverability within the legal market and their uniquely personalized approach provide their clients with a competitive advantage, something every company can use yet is not always available from larger law firms.
If you’d like to take advantage of the financial benefits and superior customer service that Kohner, Mann & Kailas S.C. delivers to all its clients, please contact our business lawyers and litigators at (414) 962-5110 or send us an email.
Founded in 1937, Kohner, Mann & Kailas, S.C. (KMK) is a leading law firm with a global reputation for success and a rich tradition of results, providing legal expertise in business and financial services, business litigation, and commercial collections. Recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation’s Best Law Firms, KMK is headquartered in Milwaukee, WI. For more information, visit www.kmksc.com.