New York Personal Injury Law Blog » BigLaw, SmallLaw


May 3rd, 2016

Big Law v. Small Law (Which is Better?)

BigLaw-v-SmallLawLast week while out on the ball field, I couldn’t help but notice the names of the sponsors on the team uniforms. The match-up was a classic one, my firm against Akin Gump: BigLaw v. SmallLaw.

And it got me thinking about a subject I’ve never broached here: What kind of firm does the client want, a big one or a small one?

The subject comes up often on the consumer end of the law — personal injury, criminal defense, immigration, matrimonial, etc. The client can go with the small 1-3 lawyer firm or the much bigger outfits. (Bigger in this type of law is 20 or more. We aren’t talking hundreds or thousands of lawyers.)

Will your case get individual attention, or be one of thousands of injury/immigration/whatever cases that the firm handles, assembly-line style? Some people like small firms with personal attention, and others like larger firms. It’s a matter of personal preference.

So here’s my perspective, from the small law side as a solo practitioner for the last 25+ years, and it comes from litigating against many Big Law firms: The bigger the firm, the more likely that this matter is not a client but a file. At 5:00 o’clock the partner in charge may yell out, “Yo Lisa, here’s the Smith file, please read it and take the deposition tomorrow.” Or perhaps, “Go pick a jury.”

What is often missing on the Big Law side is continuity. If the same person handles the file from soup to nuts, then many small details are appreciated. The client is not a file with an injured shoulder, but someone who had a passion for cooking who can’t lift heavy pots and fulfill her dream of opening a catering business. Innumerable details from client meetings and depositions can more easily be retrieved when necessary at trial, because they were learned over the course of a few years, not over the course of a weekend.

Given that law firms are likely to grow and consolidate in the future as larger firms try to cross state lines by acquiring smaller practices in other states, this is not an insignificant issue. The bigger the firm, the more institutionalized it is, the less likely there will be personal attention to the client and to the details.

On the flip side — and I need to always appreciate that other side — if the firm is small there will be inevitably be scheduling conflicts for which other lawyers are needed. The lawyer you hired may not be able to handle a certain conference or deposition because s/he is engaged elsewhere. But this merely puts the clients where they would have been anyway with a larger firm, with a new lawyer handling a particular aspect of the case.

There are some clients, of course, who simply like the comfort of Big. But big doesn’t mean better, particularly in law. Clients don’t want to be treated like files, but like people.

Personal service is vanishing in the country. From outrageous treatment on airlines, to godawful voicemail systems that won’t let you find a human to speak to big box stores with no sales help.

But this is law, which is very much a profession of service. There are no shortcuts. Big won’t get you more.

And, just for the record, about those uniforms and that game:

  1. This is the kind of advertising that I like; and
  2. Small Law won the game.




6 thoughts on “Big Law v. Small Law (Which is Better?)

  1. There is something to be said about smaller firms and the personal attention that makes clients feel like they matter. Some clients want their hands to be held and others not. The best policy is to treat all clients well. Thank you for this piece!

    So tell us, Eric, did the Turkewitz Team give Akin Gump a good run for their money?

    • So tell us, Eric, did the Turkewitz Team give Akin Gump a good run for their money?

      Small Law prevailed. The Akin Gump team was blinded by the bright orange uniforms we sported.

  2. Pingback: Big Law or Small Law? Successful Management Strategies For Both! |

  3. I think you are shortcharging the advantages of scale.

    Speaking with aggrieved parties, interviewing third parties, summarizing interviews into précis, appearing in court, writing legal documents for submission, secretarial functions, negotiating settlements, and so on are all different skill sets. A large firm can specialize, so they have specialists doing their particular specialty full-time. That is the advantage of big.

    Does that advantage stack up enough to overcome the advantage of having a single person with the overview of all the details of the case? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but either way it is an empirical question, not a matter of taste. I would expect the well-organized large firm to have the advantage, because it is usually the case in other economic activities that specialization and coordination beats individual customization, but I don’t have the data to substantiate that speculation.

    Of course, if a “large law firm” is simply fifteen lawyers who pool their secretarial functions and shuffle the drudgery off on interns, then you probably are better off with a small law firm. Any firm that is that bad at organizing will likely be bad at other things as well.

    • but I don’t have the data to substantiate that speculation.

      Nor will you ever, since the quality of legal services that we are discussing is beyond the capability of empirical testing. One small firm can kick the ass of a big firm if the big firm isn’t communicating properly. And good communication is easier said than done.

      • That seems like an extraordinary claim. Surely it should be possible to put together statistics for things like percentage of litigated cases won, litigation wins per dollar billed, compensation received per dollar of fees, percentage of cases where the client is satisfied with the result. Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head; I’m sure an actual lawyer can come up with more (and more relevant) success measures.

        Of course, KPIs like the above are not the first and final word on performance – if nothing else, KPIs can be gamed by people whose customers or bosses take them too seriously. So I’d not want to do an actual ranking of firms based on this type of metrics, but it ought to be possible to at least establish whether big and small firms are playing in the same ballpark.

        Maybe I’m wrong here, both about how measurable “success” is in the field of law and how closely the practice of law follows the usual economics of specialization and industrialization. Such fields do exist, after all. But they are not the usual case.