Big firms attract big clients, which results in big money. That’s the theory and it makes sense at first glance.
But, as the statisticians like to tell us, correlation is not causation.
There’s a lesson there for lawyers at smaller firms.
It’s not because the firm is big
Indeed, big firm partners do very well financially. Lawyers with mega-firms in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere make plenty of money. Amlaw 100 law firms rake it in, and the partners in those firms earn very substantial incomes. Many of us conclude that the size of those firms drives those large incomes. All too often that belief is misguided.
Big money certainly flows to big-firm lawyers. But, if it’s not the bigness that drives the income, what is it? Why do big-firm lawyers earn big bucks?
Because they deserve it. The big-firm lawyers have excellent credentials, the firms carefully select their team members from among the best available candidates, and the assembled lawyers attract the world’s biggest clients and cases. Then the assembled lawyers work the cases hard. They put in the time (some would argue they put in too much time) and they do what’s required to move the matter forward.
Successful companies and affluent individuals are willing to pay top dollar to secure these lawyers as their counsel.
Big firm lawyers get what they deserve
But let’s step back for a moment and consider the success of those firms. How many of those big-firm lawyers, currently making the big bucks, would struggle in a small firm? Not many.
A big-firm partner is probably someone who was admitted to and then graduated from an elite law school, navigated themselves to a summer associate position with a firm, maybe took a judicial clerkship or government position before joining the firm, and then performed well enough to become a partner. That person was going to do well at whatever they decided to do in life.
They’re not doing well because the firm is big. They’re doing well because they perform at the level that is required to do well.
These are folks who are capable of running the gauntlet and winning the game. They’d have won at most any game they played.
When you take a top-earner out of the big firm and put them in a smaller firm, they typically do very well in the new role, as well. Sure, there’s always an adjustment to the new environment but they figure it out, adapt and move forward. Mostly, they do well at whatever they do. They’re capable people in general, and as a result, they’re capable lawyers.
Don’t learn the wrong lesson
These capable big-firm lawyers aren’t making the big bucks because of the ‘big firm’ part of the equation. It’s the ‘capable lawyer’ part that’s bringing home the bacon.
The lesson we too often take from big firms is that being big matters. Don’t learn the wrong lesson. The right lesson is that being capable matters.
Being capable, as a lawyer, has lots to do with knowing where you’re going, being good with people, gaining trust, thinking hard, preparing, putting in the hours, showing up, stressing out, and getting things done.
There was once a time when pretty much the only way capable lawyers could maximize their income was by joining a big firm. Times have changed.
Small firms (even the most solo of solos) that are capable can and do earn as much or more as big-firm lawyers, if they possess the qualities I’ve mentioned and demonstrate those qualities to paying clients.
You’re right … things will never change … until they change
I accept that Coca-Cola or Boeing probably won’t hire a solo to handle all of their legal work. They need a big firm, or even a number of big firms. We all understand the volume of legal work required by these big clients and their interest in managing a limited number of vendors. Some clients hire big firms specifically because they’re big and can handle a range of issues.
But some clients hire small firms because they’re small. Those clients are looking for the special qualities offered by a smaller organization. Small firms deliver a range of advantages over big firms. Big clients hire a capable solo when the need for a particular narrow skill arises. And increasingly, big companies are finding ways to work with smaller firms as online connectivity changes our perception of what binds lawyers together and delivers big-firm benefits.
Connectivity changes everything for small firms
Yes, the internet changes everything and brings new opportunities. Lawyers get tired of hearing ‘changes everything’ pronouncements, because we look at our lives and they seem unchanged. We’re still dealing with the same clients, even if it’s a text message instead of a phone call.
But we often reflect on our lives while riding in an Uber, or eating food delivered by DoorDash, and it doesn’t fully register with us that everything has changed.
Lawyers collaborate in new ways which change the relationships between clients and firms. Online tools obviate some of the advantages that large assemblies of lawyers in large firms presented to large clients. The web of connection that the big firm offered clients is sometimes replaced by the web of connection offered by the internet. Change comes slowly, almost imperceptibly, in our slow-to-adapt corner of the business world, but your Google Map will show you the way.
[ While I have you here, I wanted to remind you that you can get the latest articles delivered to your inbox a week before they go up on the web. Just one email per week. Sign up here. ]
But nothing changes if you don’t chase the vision
One thing isn’t changing, though–internet or not. What stays the same is that well-paying clients insist on using capable lawyers. The threshold criteria for getting hired by a great client is being a great lawyer. The lawyers who reap the rewards of these changes are the lawyers who are capable of handling the work. Being in a big firm is not the competitive advantage. Being capable of doing the work is the advantage. Big firms have historically employed a big collection of capable lawyers.
Capable lawyers don’t need to hide out in big firms anymore.
If you’re a capable lawyer, then this is the time to show it off.
Because I publish in this legal space, I receive a steady flow of responses from lawyers on every continent. I’m always thrilled to get an email or a LinkedIn message from somewhere unexpected like Nigeria, or Mongolia, or Cambodia. Lawyers all over the world reach out to me with questions and comments. It’s incredible. These capable lawyers are using the tools at their disposal to expand their networks, build connections, and make themselves known around the globe. These capable lawyers use these connections to attract the work, complete the work, and solve client problems. Their small firms are big problem solvers, because the connections the big firms used to deliver are now brought to us by other tools.
The same tools these lawyers use to communicate with me are being employed to solve client problems. The Nigerian lawyer reaches out to a lawyer in Poland. They create a shared workspace. The client joins them on that platform. Documents are shared, ideas are bounced around, video conferences enhance the discussion. A Dubai lawyer is added to the mix along with a lawyer in New York. The team quietly agrees on pricing and a way to divvy up the fees. The client agrees. The deal is on.
Things are changing–fast–even if it feels slow. Big firms were once the primary way to assemble a group of capable lawyers. Today there are alternatives.
It’s not about the size of your firm; it’s about you
The right place for the client is wherever they find the right lawyer. That’s where they’re going to go.
Yes, there are obstacles standing between you and securing the clients you seek. There are roadblocks for small firms that seek to grab big clients. But those barriers are often in the mind of the lawyer who lacks the imagination–the vision–to make something happen. When you see impediments instead of opportunities, it’s worth asking yourself if what you’re seeing is simply a lack of capability. Sometimes it’s not the circumstances, it’s us.
Capable lawyers, in big firms as well as small, have opportunities to reach out and grab attention, to build networks of cooperation for completing work, and to bring clients into new relationships that were out of our reach in the past.
The tools available to us today go way beyond an Uber ride or sushi delivered to our door.
It’s no longer mostly about big firm or small; it never was. It was always about being able to deliver on our promises and being capable of giving the client what they require. Your vision is your north star. Big firms don’t attract big clients–big visions are what clients find attractive.