Why You Should Consider Working in a Boutique Law Firm
As a law student or law graduate, the prestige and respect associated with working in a top-tier law firm is a serious drawcard. Money, popularity and prestige, all factors that draw people to the top end of town.
I often speak with early career lawyers who have been sold the dream of big city life working in a top-top tier law firm. It’s sometimes all they will consider and are closed off to other opportunities, failing to consider other law firms or career paths in which their law degrees can be utilised. It’s easy to see why this occurs, you only have to see the partnerships and sponsorships with the universities and you’ll notice a distinct lack of presence of any law firms falling outside of the top-tier or upper mid-tier legal industry segment.
No way is the above meant to detract from the vital importance top-tier law firms play in supporting the legal industry. It’s acknowledged top-tier law firms play a crucial role and are highly supportive of the legal industry, spending incredible amounts of time, money and resources in developing the legal industry as a whole.
The truth is, ìn the end, the majority of law graduates will secure employment in law firms other than top-tier, this often comes after law graduates succumb to the fact that there are simply not enough available positions within the top-tiers. If they are eager to secure a law job, it’s time to temper expectations and consider the many great opportunities in specialist and boutique law firms.
Here are some great reasons why you should consider working in a boutique law firm
1. If you want to practice in a niche area of law – a boutique law firm may be better
There are many specialist and boutique law firms who practice in niche areas of law. This can include Insurance, criminal, wills and estates, employment, IP/patents, debt recovery and litigation (there’s many more). These specialist law firms were established because lawyers who were passionate about the practice areas decided to specialise and establish their own legal practices (in some cases, many were founded by ex top-tier partners). Many of these laws firms have grown to include multiple partnerships and have built exceptional reputations within the legal industry.
The benefit of working in a niche area of law is, as an early career lawyer, you will be able to specialise in a niche practice area, work with a select client base and build your professional reputation. If you compare this to a top-tier graduate lawyer, they will generally enter a rotation over 24mths where they spend a few months at a time gaining experience in different practice areas. There can be big differences in the way this early experience in gained. A graduate lawyer in a boutique law firm after 24 mths will have a solid 24mths experience within a particular practice area, whilst a top-tier graduate lawyer may have less practical experience in any one particular practice area of law.
This is not to say that all top-tier law firms have graduate programs which operate as mentioned above or to say that there are no major benefits that accompany the top-tier law firms graduate programs (because there are). It’s just a general observation and basic comparison of the two.
2. The Opportunity for More Hands-on Work
Many smaller boutique law firms will not have the resources to implement and facilitate structured training and development programs (at least not compared to the level of top-tier). Whilst some may see this as a disadvantage, to some, it’s the perfect opportunity to dive right and gain great hands-on experience.
You’ll need to determine if you are the type of person that enjoys learning this way. Typically, to be successful in an environment with less direct supervision, you’re required to be more self-motivated and aware of how you are spending your time. You’ll also need to ensure you develop strong communication skills and a good relationship with your direct report so that you are comfortable to reach out and gain support and advice when required.
3. Work With a Variety of Small Businesses
Many small and medium-sized businesses will not have the financial capacity to work with the top-tier law firms, and will in most cases prefer to build close relationships with boutique sized law firms who are able to provide high-level personalised service. If you’re the type of person who may enjoy working with business owners, you’ll find working with this market segment enjoyable. As opposed to representing large corporations, working with smaller business owners may give you a greater sense of satisfaction in knowing that the service you provide has a close and real-world impact on these individuals, their families and lively hood.
4. You Like Client Contact
In a top-tier law firm, you are more likely to be working on portions of matters and typically the partners and senior lawyers will control the client interaction. This is because the matters are larger and require the effort of more people to achieve the required outcome in the desired period of time. Boutique law firms, on the other hand, will have smaller teams of lawyers who will generally work on larger portions of matters, if not solely. This gives lawyers in boutique law firms the opportunity to assume client control, correspond directly and the responsibility of developing the client relationship.
If you are the type of person who enjoys owning the responsibility of a matter and controlling the process from start to finish, you’ll enjoy the work in a boutique law firm.
5. You Enjoy Working in a Smaller Team
Not everyone enjoys working as part of a larger team (including the politics that is sometimes associated with working in a larger environment). Working in a boutique law firm gives you the opportunity to develop solid relationships with a close-knit team. You’ll also be more privy to the inner workings of the law firm being that there are generally no large internal departments. You’ll also find that you’ll have the opportunity to work on big-picture activities such as promotions, marketing and business development, this is because, in smaller firms, it’s accepted that everyone pitch in to help in other areas.
6. More Work/Life Balance
There are many reasons why work/life balance is better achieved in a boutique law firm (although not always the case). Typically, this occurs because the nature of the matters are smaller and less time sensitive, much of the work may be transactional and there is some degree of flexibility in which the work must be completed by.
You’ll find that many of the principals and partners of boutique law firms have families or commitments in which they require a higher degree of flexibility and work/life balance. This may have been a determining factor of why they established the law firm in the first place. The good news is, if you have a partner or leadership team that values work/life balance and flexibility, you’ll find it an acceptable practice in the firm.
7. The Salary is Not Necessarily Better in a Top-Tier Law Firm
Top-Tier law firms will typically pay better salaries (marginally). Although there has been a sharp increase in the salaries being offered to lawyers in boutique law firms that operate within niche practice areas (example construction law).
It should be noted that with the extra hours being worked by some lawyers in top-tier law firms (in-excess of 80-hours per week, including some weekends) compared to those in boutique law firms, the salaries when calculated by the hour tend to be similar (or in fact less).
So really, when you break it down, salary should no longer be such a driving factor when choosing between the different tier law firms.
I’ve had many conversations with senior level lawyers who have had successful careers in top-tier law firms, only to have decided to take positions with smaller specialist and boutique law firms. This has been for many reasons, including those listed above.
It appears the case, as lawyers gain more experience, less value is placed on the prestige associated with working in a top-tier law firm and more is placed on work/life balance and flexibility. Many specialists and boutique law firms work with exceptional clients. The prestige associated with working in a top-tier law firm is in some cases is wrongly perceived anyway, I know of many boutique law firms that work with clients who you would categorise as top-tier clients, i.e large international corporations and the like.
It’s important to highlight the many benefits of working in a boutique law firm. Law students and graduates, in particular, should consider it a viable option from early on in their legal studies, this will help to shape the actions and steps they take whilst navigating their legal studies and will help to guide by choosing the courses and electives that may benefit them more at the end of their law degrees.