When a Boutique Firm or Solo Practitioner is the Best Outside Counsel

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By Paige Zandri

Bigger Isn't Always Better

You may have noticed that, as your company is growing, so is your legal spend. You may also be evaluating your legal budget against whether you are getting the value you had hoped for when you started your relationship with outside counsel. Still, maybe you’re not ready to make an in-house hire and would like to evaluate more efficient outside counsel options. Luckily, the recent intersection of law and tech has yielded viable options.

If you’re curious about the first step in achieving legal cost control, you may want to start by exploring alternatives to big law firms. What you’ll quickly discover is that there is no shortage of lawyers who have opted out of the traditional “big law” career path to open their own practices. These lawyers are leveraging technology and low fixed costs to provide significant cost savings to clients. You may now be asking yourself, though, how to go about finding and choosing the right small law firm without taking on too much risk (which could ultimately absorb all of that cost savings). It’s true that not all big law alternatives are created equally. You will not only want to look for high quality experience and credentials, but you’ll also want to be able to understand how the lawyer approaches practice management and client service, which is not always easily ascertainable.  

You might start by asking your contacts in your professional and personal networks. Your relationship with your lawyer, after all, should be built on trust, like any other. The obvious benefits of tapping into your own network can be counterbalanced, however, by unseen biases and the limited scope of the issues that the referral source faced themselves when seeking counsel from the lawyer they recommend. Your business is uniquely yours, and your legal needs are no different. The ideal scenario is to be able to access an objectively high-quality and hand-picked selection of lawyers that are experienced with the issues your business faces day in and day out (and even those issues that are less frequent or predictable).

We’ll dive into the best approach for finding the right small firm outside counsel for your organization shortly, but first, let’s go over the benefits of doing so. Here are four advantages of seeking out a boutique or solo practitioner as your outside counsel:

  1. Rich experience. Many solo and boutique firm lawyers used to practice at larger firms. Often, former “big law” attorneys will set out on their own to free themselves of the high overhead and bureaucratic ties that come with working in larger organizations. They have the expertise, and they have their own ideas about how a law firm should run as well as how they prefer to cultivate a valuable and lasting client relationship. By choosing a seasoned lawyer who practiced at a large firm, you get the benefit of the high quality experience and professional training that a large firm provides, but without the heavy billing burden of the large firm brand.

  1. Targeted expertise. Boutique firm practitioners tend to have particularly specialized experience in one or, at most, a few practice areas. Examples might include mergers and acquisitions, securities compliance, intellectual property or employment law. Also, some small firm lawyers provide the most value when they “quarterback” for a client and manage a team of outside counsel. In other words, the quarterback is a generalist and works efficiently with a trusted team of specialists. If this is the type of lawyer you think will fit your needs, you might look for one who was formerly an in-house counsel, rather than a big firm lawyer. You’ll need to assess and prioritize your needs and search accordingly.

  1. Personal attention. More and more, clients praise the personal attention they get from their boutique and solo firm counsel. There’s something about working with a lawyer who is also operating their own small business - they just “get it.” The feedback is that these lawyers are more accessible, responsive and foster a partnership-style relationship with their clients.

  1. Lower rates. Lower overhead means that small firm practitioners will pass on the cost savings to their clients. Statistically, we’ve seen that former big law attorneys are willing and able to to offer their services at half the rate they had to charge while at the large law firm. Although this means that your attorney may need to personally handle some tasks that would ordinarily be done by paralegals or support staff with relatively lower billing rates, your overall savings will most likely outweigh any additional expenses.

How to Find the Right Boutique Firm or Solo Practitioner

Once you’re ready to consider the transition to a small firm lawyer better suited for your needs and budget, there are a variety of factors you can focus on to find the right outside counsel for your business. At Priori, we evaluate lawyers against an exhaustive checklist of factors like experience and expertise, practice management skills, responsiveness and “bedside manner” (to name a few) to find the right lawyers for the long and short term legal needs of our clients. After a selection of potential lawyers are hand chosen for our clients’ specific needs, they can then go in and measure the lawyer’s fit against their own subjective preferences.

Here are some of the main factors we consider:

  1. Areas of expertise. This first step might seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many lawyers are willing to “learn on the job.” Also, clients are guilty of giving work to the lawyer they’ve “always worked with” even when the legal issue at hand is outside of their lawyer’s wheelhouse. Make sure that the lawyer you are working with has enough experience working with the legal issues you face or are facing, and it also helps if that lawyer is familiar with your industry. More particularly, if your business operates in a highly regulated industry, like food or drugs for example, you’ll need a lawyer familiar with the relevant regulatory bodies. This targeted experience can stretch your savings for miles, and can be found in the form of a boutique or solo practitioner.

  1. Years of experience. The next place to look when evaluating a lawyer’s fit is how many years they have been practicing. Junior lawyers are rarely prepared to assume the role of lead outside counsel, so you generally want to focus on lawyers who have been practicing no fewer than five years. We find, though, that the sweet spot is around 12-15 years of experience.

  1. Work history. You can look to a small firm practitioner’s prior law firm experience as a proxy for the quality of service you can expect from him or her. Also, as mentioned above, there may be cases in which you should focus on lawyers who formerly held in-house counsel roles themselves. It’s very possible these days to find a small firm practitioner that has been in-house counsel at a company that might have been (or could one day be) your closest competitor.

  1. Academic credentials. Did your lawyer go to a top tier law school or a well-respected regional law school? Being a top tier law grad does not, by itself, mean that the lawyer is a great fit for you. Likewise, not having a law degree from a top tier school doesn’t prevent a lawyer from being just what you need. This metric, though, when taken with the other factors listed here, is influential. It can tip the scale one way or the other.

  1. Soft skills. I would argue that this factor can and should exist on all points of the scale. When thinking about your outside counsel needs, you should consider whether you actually like the person you’re going to be working with. Often people discount this factor because “nobody likes lawyers.” But that does not have to be true, not anymore at least. Responsive, business-minded, tech-saavy lawyers are completely likeable and your experience working with them can be enjoyable. You’ll just need to pay attention to this factor from the first interaction. Ask yourself, “Would I send my mom to this person?” Depending on the answer (and your relationship with your mom), you’ll know pretty quickly whether or not you want to trust the most intimate details of your business with this person.

Finding the right lawyer for businesses at affordable rates is what we do here at Priori. It’s important to us that you have the type of experience with your lawyer that you deserve and that you pay for. Get started today to get your perfect lawyer match.

 

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