Talking to associates about career options is my favorite aspect of my job as a recruiter. Having worked on the recruitment teams at both a boutique and one of the world’s biggest law firms, I have a nuanced perspective on the pros and cons of each. The bottom line is that there is no “one size fits all” solution: many attorneys thrive at their Biglaw practices, but others prefer a different path.
Most Biglaw associates I speak with view a move in-house as the only true exit option. They often perceive in-house roles to offer a perfect convergence of lifestyle, work and benefits. That might be true in some companies, but associates who make the in-house transition often discover that their expectations were unrealistic, as my colleague Adrienne Levi has discussed in detail.
Of course, recent layoffs at both major law firms and large companies are on the minds of many associates. It may feel like there is no safe next step. But it’s important to recognize that Biglaw and in-house roles are not the only possibilities. For an associate looking to make a move in the current market, a smaller regional firm or boutique may be a more compelling option than ever. Let’s take a look at what these firms can offer and why now is the time to consider a lateral move to one.
Smaller firms are not immune to market forces, but they are in a different position from the many Biglaw firms that participated in the hiring frenzy of the past few years. By and large, smaller firms sat on the sidelines, hiring conservatively on an “as needed” basis. So at a time when many Biglaw firms and in-house legal departments have “dead weight” to shed, smaller firms are better positioned to avoid layoffs.
Breadth of experience
Smaller firms and boutiques are often full service counsel to their clients, despite having far fewer attorneys. This enables corporate associates to work across a variety of practices, including more niche areas like real estate, employment and corporate governance. That opportunity contrasts starkly with the typical Biglaw experience of specialization into a single area such as M&A or finance.
Associates who switch to a smaller firm often find the variety refreshing. But it also has a more tactical advantage: the opportunity to pivot your practice will serve you well in a slower economy when certain transactional practices can grind to a halt, putting your job at risk.
Superior lifestyle/compensation balance
As Adrienne points out, there will likely be a compensation trade-off when making a move to a smaller firm or a boutique, assuming you are currently on the Biglaw market scale. But if you choose wisely, any compensation hit can be more than balanced by a reduced workload.
For example, I work regularly with a San Francisco-based boutique that pays around 15-20% below the typical Biglaw scale. However, this firm requires just 1800 hours annually, whereas the average Biglaw corporate associate bills about 2500 per year. So the 15-20% pay cut comes with an hours reduction of around 30%. For many associates, that is an attractive trade. Even from a wealth maximization perspective, it can be a smart move to shift to a workload that makes a longer private practice career feel like a viable option. Imagine what you could do with an extra 700 hours a year!
I’ve spoken with several regional and boutique firms who view this downturn as an opportunity. Because they can be more nimble with their fees, they expect to attract potentially distressed clients, and they anticipate needing more talent to support a growing pipeline of matters. Many of these firms have no qualms about hiring associates who were laid off: Biglaw training is valuable, and these firms recognize their opportunity to capitalize on the newly available talent pool in a less competitive hiring environment.
In summary, while I could also write a lengthy article on the benefits of sticking it out at a big firm (training, cutting edge legal work, not to mention comp…), I think it’s important to recognize that staying in Biglaw is not the best path for everyone. For those ready to move on, there are wonderfully fulfilling law firm opportunities out there.