We all know that Biglaw practice can be a grueling experience. Some lawyers love practicing at the cutting edge and manage to navigate the lifestyle trade-offs over the long term. However, many Biglaw attorneys eventually find themselves feeling burned out and needing to escape. That feeling tends to be especially acute towards the end of the year, as associates confront the prospect of spending yet another holiday season burning the midnight oil.
So with a new year on the horizon, it’s unsurprising that many candidates have been coming to me to discuss potential in-house opportunities. After all, in-house is the most widely discussed alternative career path. But before plunging headfirst into an in-house search, I find it helpful to dig a little deeper into what these candidates are trying to achieve. It turns out that many Biglaw associates who initially tell me they want to go in-house haven’t actually thought hard about the realities of in-house careers, whether they would be a strong fit for those roles, or if this would be the best fit in the long term. Fundamentally, they’re just seeking a more balanced lifestyle, and they see in-house as the easiest means to that end.
The thing is, in-house isn’t for everyone. To be sure, some lawyers thrive as in-house counsel. But many are disappointed to discover that the grass isn’t actually greener.
Fortunately, Biglaw and in-house are not the only options. Attorneys who are tired of Biglaw life should also consider a different alternative: boutique and midsize law firms.
The boutique and midsize alternative
I know what some of you are thinking. “Hold up. I’m trying to get away from billing hours. Wouldn’t a boutique mean working the same nights and weekends, but for less money?”
The truth is, in some cases, it absolutely would mean that. But not all. Attorneys working for boutique and midsize firms have a wide range of experiences. It’s an overstatement to say that Biglaw firms are all the same, but the basic business model is pretty standardized. In contrast, there is way more differentiation between boutique law firm models. The key is finding a boutique or midsize firm that offers the right model for you.
Some boutiques are designed very explicitly for Biglaw refugees: same high-level, interesting matters with highly-trained colleagues, but working fewer hours, for somewhat less pay. Exactly how many fewer hours and how substantial a pay cut will vary from firm to firm, and market to market. But note that these are essentially the same trade-offs that candidates confront when considering in-house roles. The most lucrative in-house positions tend to require almost Biglaw-level hours, whereas a true 9-to-5 in-house role will require a significant pay cut. (If it doesn’t, the job very likely won’t be 9-to-5!)
Evaluating boutique/midsize opportunities
What should you think about when exploring boutique or midsize roles? The basic mantra is: do not make assumptions. Talk to many people. Ask probing questions.
For example, when comparing opportunities, don’t just look at the number of billable hours required. The number alone won’t tell you very much—you need to dig deeper. How does the firm bill? What counts as billable? Are associates generally billing significantly more than the requirement? Are there additional marketing hours required or is the quoted hours number the full amount actually expected?
Let’s imagine you are currently at a Biglaw firm that requires 1950 hours. You have an opportunity at a boutique or midsize firm that requires 1800. On the surface, that doesn’t sound too different. But there’s a good chance your current 1950-hour requirement does not fully capture how much you are working. It’s quite likely that you end up billing more than the requirement in most years on client matters alone—perhaps significantly more. On top of that, Biglaw firms often expect something like 300 hours on marketing, CLEs, and other work that isn’t billed to a client. Just as you might want to give a candidate considering your firm some additional context about the “1950 hours,” you would be well-advised to ask questions about your potential new firm’s 1800-hour target, so that you can make an informed comparison.
Speak with multiple associates and really probe to understand the reality of the lifestyle. Some boutique and midsize firms genuinely offer work/life balance. Others do not. Do your diligence to figure out the true nature of the opportunity presented.
A trusted recruiter can be an especially useful resource in this process. A recruiter who knows your market well has likely already placed candidates at the firms you should be considering. Take advantage of the inside knowledge and introductions your recruiter can offer.
If you manage to navigate the process successfully, it really is possible to end up in a sweet spot. Interesting work. Humane hours. Solid compensation. While in-house may appear to be the easy answer, if a better lifestyle is what you’re seeking, the boutique/midsize path is well worth your consideration.