Inside Perspective: Size … does it matter?

Anita Wilson is VP & Chief Employment Counsel at TreeHouse Foods Inc. in Westchester, Ill., where she handles all labor, employment, benefits, ethics and compliance issues.

In-house counsel regularly debate whether to use a large or small law firm.  The quandary is like deciding whether you need a massive, tough SUV, or whether a small, zippy sports car will suffice.  What’s better? Is a large law firm better than a small law firm? What are the pros and cons of using one versus the other?  I have worked at and used both types of firms and, in my view, there are differences.

A large law firm is like a cruise ship.  Up on the Lido deck, you can get whatever you need and you can get it quickly.  But vacation on that ship is going to be expensive! And sometimes, if there’s an iceberg or storm up ahead, it takes that big ship a loooooong time to make a u-turn.

On the other hand, a small law firm is like a private yacht.  Service on the yacht is customized and unique.  You can get that specially-made margarita — you just can’t get 50 of them in 10 minutes.  The private yacht can change and correct course on a dime, but it might tip over if it tries to turn too fast, or tries to venture out into unchartered waters.

In sum, large law firms can get a lot done.  A junior partner once told me, “I don’t think we can do that,” when I asked him to complete a research project within 36 hours.  I was dumbfounded.  “Don’t you have elves here who work all night?” I sputtered.  “I mean you have showers here for crying out loud.” (I know. I used to be one of those elves.)    The senior equity partner quickly moved into action like only an equity partner at a large law firm can.  He snapped his fingers twice and like Moses issuing the Ten Commandments proclaimed “So it is requested, so it shall be done!” The elves completed the work and the word-processing night minions typed it up.

Some small law firms simply don’t have the bandwith (or the elves for that matter) to work that quickly on a large project.  But they can do other things that large law firms can’t do. I know a top partner at a small law firm who makes her own copies, but she has also actually tried cases before every federal judge in the Northern District.  Those are key experiences that can be harder to get at a large law firm.  And her hourly billing rate is probably 10 times less than the hourly billing rate of just one junior elf at a large firm.

Of course these are generalizations and not all firms fit this paradigm.  But at times, a large firm would do well to act like a small firm by providing more affordable rates and, at times, some small firms need to be able to provide large-scale resources like a large firm so they can be more responsive.

So does size matter when it comes to law firms? It depends on what you need at the time. Do you need a SUV or a sports car?   Personally, I think you need to have both.


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