Is The Prospect Of Being A Partner In Name Only Driving Lawyers From Biglaw To Boutiques?

Is The Prospect Of Being A Partner In Name Only Driving Lawyers From Biglaw To Boutiques?

Biglaw or boutique law? While Biglaw still entices young lawyers (and even those not-so young) with the siren call of big money, the reality of what Biglaw costs attorneys is becoming more of a talking point for those already in the profession and entering it.

Joe Patrice wrote about it in a recent post about how there’s a title shell game in Biglaw: “partner” in name only. Should that be called “PINO”? As Joe points out, the deequitization trend is anything but transparent. When is a partner not a partner? When the firm says she isn’t, and the use of that misleading term when that it is not the case does no one any good, neither the “partner,” nor the firm. A client may think her matter is in the hands of a “partner,” and it is in the hands of a partner, but a PINO. Does anyone in the firm ever explain to the client the differences between a real partner and a PINO? Do you think that would be a good idea so that the client knows exactly what a PINO is and where that person is in the hierarchy and the extent of what a PINO can do without an equity partner’s supervision?

Sara Randazzo’s article in the last Saturday’s print edition (West Coast) of the Wall Street Journal is “The Flip Side of Making Partner.” Dinosaurs will remember that there was an “A” side and a “B” side of records and almost always it was the “A” side that was promoted and sold the most copies. You had to have a “B” side, but oftentimes that side was just there because you had to have a “B” side. So, are PINOs the “B” side?

As Randazzo points out, it’s all about “bill, baby, bill” today, and the camaraderie that was an essential part of the fit (and partners would look for that in prospective hires) is gone. Collegiality doesn’t mean what it used to, long live billable hours. She writes that “all partners are not created equal, and that data and money rule.”

Randazzo notes that in the mid-1980s, The American Lawyer started its comparisons of revenue and profits of the Biglaw firms. It was then off to the races, and the profession has never been the same since. I think we lost something that we will never retrieve.

Steven Brill was the founder of The American Lawyer. In his book Tailspin, subtitled “The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall—and Those Fighting to Revise It,” he acknowledges the role that The American Lawyer has played in the transformation of the law practice. Writing about the very first report that the magazine published in the summer of 1985, he says that “there is no denying that the fallout of this report and those that have followed since The American Lawyer and other trade publications was significant and double-edged. The new flow of market information about these businesses made those who ran them more accountable to their partners, their employees and their clients, but it also transformed the practice of law by the country’s most talented lawyers in ways that had significant drawbacks.” You think? What was lost in what was gained?

Question: When you have a firm of thousands of lawyers, how do you avoid client conflicts when there are lawyers all over the world handling all sorts of different transactions, different litigation, different regulatory issues? Is it ever possible to have a clean conflict check? Your client is your client and you don’t want to relinquish that work because a partner (and not a PINO) in another part of the country or somewhere else in the world outranks you and you lose the work. What is your client’s reaction? Your client knows you are a “partner.” Yes, but….

Take the poll that ATL is running now, asking the question, “What do you wish you had known about Biglaw before you started?” Tell ATL how you really feel.

What is happening is that associates are now taking themselves and their work to “boutique law firms,” where these associates do not get lost in the shuffle but get to do meaningful work from the get-go. has a podcast now about three lawyers (early in their careers) who left Biglaw to join boutique firms that do much more to satisfy both their professional and personal needs.

Why make the switch? Boutiques provide the experience that newer lawyers crave and cannot get in Biglaw — there are opportunities to do both paid and pro bono work, and in these smaller firms, the associates often drive the pro bono work. In boutiques, they not only do the depo prep but they take the deposition. There’s a partner by your side at the depo, but you’re taking it, not the partner. You go to court with a partner and argue the motion, but you are arguing, not the partner. All three of the lawyers said making the switch gave them the opportunity to get “boots on the ground” experience, rather than just observing others. They are doing, not watching.

Benefits play a part as well in the decisions to switch — availability of both childcare and elder care, flexible schedules, to name just a few.

It’s easier to have a voice in a smaller firm, and, as one lawyer noted, it’s harder to get buy-in for a project, an idea for associate development, across a ginormous firm. It’s also easier for newer lawyers in a boutique firm to build business, to be entrepreneurial, because the firm can be flexible, especially when representing startups and billings can be deferred. Smaller firms are nimbler in what they’re willing to do to get their associates up and running, to help them succeed.

And implicit in what all three lawyers said is the collegiality that a boutique law firm can provide. Yes, we all became lawyers to do good and, as a collateral benefit, to have a comfortable lifestyle. We knew we were all in this together. At least, we were. Not so much any longer.

old lady lawyer elderly woman grandmother grandma laptop computerJill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at

Published at Wed, 14 Aug 2019 18:14:51 +0000

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