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Why are more associates diverting their legal careers from Biglaw to boutique?

Posted by: Laurence Simons 07/09/12

What's the difference between Biglaw and boutique? Well, size. Size is obviously the difference. Biglaw is big. Boutique is small.

But hey, listen, there's more: there are other differences too, and everyone suddenly cares about them thanks to a curious trend emerging among US Biglaw associates. More and more of them are taking what looks like a sideways or downwards step out of the safe and protective arms of commercial legal giants into more specialised niche firms. Exhibit A: Rob Park, who just last month took a step from the US Justice Department to mid-sized niche firm Murphy & McGonigle. Exhibit B: Justin Shur, who also snubbed Biglaw overtures earlier this year to join 30-lawyer operation MoloLamken. Exhibit C is unnecessary, because you get it.

And Tom Wallerstein also gets it. The Above the Law columnist started life as a baby, but then swiftly became a lawyer, and started his first legal job at a prestigious Philadelphia firm. After kicking butt (legally) and taking names (legally) for five years, he moved up to litigious powerhouse Quinn Emanuel Urguhart & Sullivan, before leaving the firm in 2009 to start his own boutique business, Colt Wallerstein LLP. Basically: he knows the difference between Biglaw, boutique and having your name on the headed stationery.

"In a small firm, the culture and general work environment become even more important," he says. That's not always a good thing: if you don't see eye-to-eye with a colleague or find your career path blocked at a boutique firm, you may find Biglaw offers more opportunities for progression, what with its various departments, floors and partners. But the key advantage of moving to boutique is the platform allows aspirational lawyers to explore their ambitions to own or establish a business.

"I spoke to one former Biglaw managing partner who started his own firm, and he said that the main advantage he perceived was the freedom and independence to chart his own path and do things the way he wants them done," said Tom. "He gained a lot of satisfaction knowing that he was building his enterprise his way, from the ground up."

Does that mean everyone should immediately jump off the Biglaw ship and onto the boutique row boat? In short: no. Long answer: noooo. The business side of running a firm - all spreadsheets and no fun - won't necessarily appeal to everyone. But for those who want to explore an alternate route towards making partner, or dream at night of having their surname in big letters above a door, moving to a boutique or mid-sized firm could be a step up.