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Understanding How Different-Sized Law Offices Do Business

By Brian Farkas, Attorney

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Although every lawyer has his or her own unique way of doing things, most law offices share a surprising number of characteristics in terms of their business model. For example, you’ll see many of the same job titles across different firms. As a consumer of legal services, you should be aware of how law firms of different sizes function, to get the most of your legal representation.

Size Matters, for Law Firms

One of the primary differentiators between law firms is their size. By size, we don’t mean just the size of the firm’s offices, but rather the number of attorneys.

Firms range in size from sole practitioners to literally hundreds or even thousands of lawyers. Some firms have single-room offices in a small town; others have dozens of offices in major cities around the world. While size isn’t everything, clients will observe significant differences between small firms and large ones. Here are some of the basic distinctions:

Sole Practitioners: Once a lawyer has passed the bar exam, it does not take much to start his or her own practice other than renting office space and hanging up a shingle. Thus, it is not surprising that law offices of sole practitioners are probably the biggest single category of practicing lawyers. Solo practitioners can be excellent lawyers, and are commonly used for matters like criminal defense, trusts & estates planning, tax issues, immigration, and small business representation.

Although no two lawyers are the same, potential benefits of hiring a sole practitioner include:

  • A more direct one-on-one working relationship with your lawyer. Your case is not going to get lost in the shuffle or handed off to another, perhaps less experienced attorney. Solo practitioners generally don’t have large advertising firms, like large firms do, so keeping clients happy is extremely important to them.
  • Lower fees and costs. Although not always, many sole practitioners have lower overhead a larger law firm. They don’t have offices all over the world, or large staff salaries to maintain. Thus, it is not unusual for a sole practitioner to charge less than a big firm might for doing the same type of routine work.
  • Taking smaller cases. As another potential benefit of being able to charge less, a sole practitioner may be more inclined to take the smaller cases that are not cost effective for a big firm. For example, a solo practitioner might take a business dispute worth $5,000, while a large multinational firm might consider that matter too small to be profitable.
  • Conflicts of interest are easier to handle. Generally speaking, a law firm cannot handle a legal matter that creates conflicts of interest with existing clients of the firm. Depending on the size of your community, the larger the law firm, the more likely there may be conflicts of interest.

Small and Mid-Size Law Firms: Depending on your location, a law firm that has between two and 50 attorneys might be considered “small” or “mid-sized.” (In a small town, a firm of ten attorneys might be considered mid-sized, but in Chicago, that would be considered fairly small).

The benefits of working with a small or mid-sized law office, as compared to a solo practitioner or multinational firm, may include:

  • More expertise in a given specialty. In a firm environment, small firms sometimes are better able to develop areas of expertise, since they do not have to be all things to all people. Some small law offices are called “boutique” firms because they tend to specialize in a given area (for example, copyright litigation or immigration law).
  • A small law firm can handle a broader range of legal matters. Some cases are simply too complex or staff-intensive for a solo practitioner to handle, but still not large enough to merit a multinational firm. A mid-size firm may truly be able to provide effective legal representation in every major area of practice. Thus, it may be able address all of your legal needs.
  • Better coverage. No lawyer can be available all the time, so a benefit of a small law firm is having other lawyers on call in case one is busy or on leave.
  • Pooling of knowledge and experience. It is always helpful on a complicated legal matter to be able to talk to other lawyers to pick their brains on legal strategies. A small law firm is a great environment in which to do this.
  • Reputation. Small and mid-sized firms tend to develop reputations in their communities, since they have more bodies representing clients and arguing before judges. A firm’s reputation can lend credibility to your claims.
  • Contacts. The contacts that a law firm has may be just as important as its reputation. Although not always the case, the larger the law firm, the better the contacts it may have, not only in bar association matters, but also in the legal and business community overall.

Large Law Offices: A large law firm of 50 or more lawyers is going to be able to do the same legal work as most any of the smaller law offices. Typically, though, they have grown so big because of their ability to devote the legal resources and expertise necessary to handle large and complex legal problems. Such problems might include a large corporate merger, or multi-million dollar litigation. More particularly, potential benefits of hiring an attorney in a large firm include:

  • Lawyers with high levels of expertise. Large firms tend to hire many seasoned attorneys as lateral employees—including former prosecutors or government lawyers—so they have a deep well of legal capability.
  • Resources to handle legal matters for public companies, governments, and other large organizations.
  • Clout. You are a formidable opponent if you have a large law firm on your side. It can convey a message to an opposing party that you mean business, since you are willing to invest significant amounts of money into your legal matter.
  • Multiple locations. Almost all large law firms have offices in strategic metropolitan areas. More and more, these firms have offices worldwide. As businesses go global, this gives the large law firms a major competitive edge when it comes to representing international companies, or companies that have contracts or other business interests abroad.

Tips for Keeping Down the Legal Bills

Regardless of whether you hire a solo practitioner or a large multinational firm, you will want to pay close attention to your legal bills. Some lawyers charge by the hour; others charge a fixed amount to handle a certain type of matter. Other lawyers will blend the two approaches.

Regardless, you should have a written fee agreement with the attorney up front, to clarify the arrangement. If your attorney charges hourly, ask for specific estimates on how much he or she would project as the total cost for handling your matter.

As a client, keep these tips in mind when trying to keep your legal bills to a minimum:

  • A partner will bill at higher rates for time spent on your case than an associate or paralegal. At the same time, though, having a partner work on your matter may be cheaper in the long run if it requires a high level of expertise, since it may take the partner less time to resolve a legal problem than it would an associate who has less experience.
  • Lawyers typically bill for telephone calls. Thus, make sure you have a good reason for calling your lawyer before you do so. It is sometimes a good idea to try talking to the lawyer’s secretary or even a paralegal to see if you can resolve the issue at hand (such as a billing matter) rather than talking directly to the lawyer.
  • Lawyers bill for travel time and costs. Thus, if you are given the choice, plan meetings at your lawyer’s office rather than insisting that he or she come to your office. Also, realize that if you ask your lawyer to fly to another city to negotiate a contract, you will likely pay his or her hourly rate for the time spent travelling, in addition to the cost of the plane tickets, hotel bills, meals, and so on.
  • Insist that your lawyer provide you with an itemized bill that gives detailed information on how you are being charged. While every law firm handles billing differently, many charge not only for lawyer time but also for time spent by paralegals, legal secretaries, and other support staff. You can use the information on an itemized bill to decide how to communicate most effectively with your law firm without running up the legal bills.

Understanding how law firms run their own businesses—from the titles of their personnel, to the billing structure, to the implications of their size—will make you a more informed client, better able to get the most from your legal representation.

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