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New career path for those in private practice legal jobs as medium-sized firms trump Biglaw

Posted by: Laurence Simons 21/08/12

Disaggregation is all the rage.

The traditional, well-trodden legal career path has always been this: graduate law school, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, then alternately drink and file paperwork for nine years and some private practice legal job before making partner. After that, climb the corporate ladder one rung at a time, leaping from legal behemoth to legal behemoth, until you are in a perfectly white office on the top floor of a huge inner-city building, windows to all sides of you, secretary on speakerphone. "Ha ha ha ha ha," you say, surveying your kingdom. "Ha ha ha ha ha!"

But forget all that, forget it. As veteran Justice Department lawyer Rob Park has proven, taking a step down is all the rage, after the government attorney turned his nose up at Biglaw and joined mid-size law firm Murphy & McGonigle. He followed in the footsteps of Justin Shur, former deputy chief of the Justice Department's public integrity section, by joining the 30-lawyer firm this week, while Shur has been occupying seat #17 at tiny litigation boutique MoloLamken since earlier this year. What is the deal?

"I think people are willing to explore a boutique more now than in the past," said Jeffrey Low, managing partner at Major Lindsey & Africa, speaking to the Washington Post. "For a lot of people, it makes sense."

And it makes sense because the whole 'global recession thing' has hit the legal industry pretty hard. Large firms are resorting to staff cuts or lower billing rates in an effort to hold on to big-hitting corporate clients, leaving a vacuum for boutique and medium-sized firms to thrive in, picking up all those errant lawyers shed by Biglaw firms and snapping up those negotiable corporate contracts.

Well, that and it offers ambitious lawyers a launch pad for their own enterprises. As The American Lawyer's 2010 lateral report found, 114 partners left top 200 firms to start or join small practices from October 2008 to September 2009, up 70 partners on the previous 12-month period. And Park is no different. As he explained, Murphy & McGonigle's less pressured environment allows him and his ventures to flourish.

"Large law firms have such a voracious need for new business that it makes the pressure all the more intense," he said. "I looked at several [larger firms] and I had some interest, but I didn't get the sense it was going to be as supportive an environment during the period I was developing business. I thought I'd be on an island by myself."

And he doesn't want to be on an island by himself. He wants to be in a top-floor office, looking down and laughing. So while taking one step backwards to go two or three forwards is a risky strategy, it's one a number of eligible partners are making.