You may have heard the term “boutique” law firm, and if you're a little unsure about what it actually means, you're not alone - it’s one that usually causes a bit of confusion.
While “boutique” can make us think of small stores selling glamorous clothing usually with a higher price tag, in the law world, “boutique” has taken on a slightly different meaning, and today we’re going to delve into boutique law firms and what they do.
A boutique law firm is basically a collection of attorneys who are organized in a limited liability partnership or professional corporation specializing in a niche area of law practice, such as tax, corporate fraud, or litigation.
“Boutique” signals the specialized nature of such firms, as while general law firms would have different departments to deal with different areas of law, a boutique firm would specialize in one particular type of law or several related areas.
Often people may describe small law firms as being “boutique” firms but this is actually a confusion of the term. Boutique doesn’t actually refer to the size of the firm but the specialization, however, such firms do tend to be smaller, aside from some of the big names such as Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, or Fish & Richardson, who have over 400 attorneys.
In the 1980s, due to consolidation, American mid-size law firms began losing ground in the legal market. However, it is thanks to boutique firms that larger law firms from regional centers were able to expand in key new markets such as New York City.
During the global financial crisis in 2008, firms began to move away from consolidation and instead formed smaller boutique firms as a way to separate themselves from the struggling big firms.
For example, Washington, D.C.-based Hausfeld LLP was born out of Cohen Milstein, and Alabama-based Frohsin & Barger LLC was spun out of the southern regional firm Baker Donelson.
Boutique law firms have managed to remain competitive due to the complexities and specialty of the law practices they offer: for example, Seattle-based Harris & Moure remain a competitive force in international law practice.
Benefits of going with a boutique law firm
Boutique law firms offer specialized services, so why hire a large, one-stop law firm when you can go with a company that specializes in the area of law you need?
When it comes to legal advice, you want somebody who can provide as much depth and specificity as possible, and if a firm covers just one area of law in particular, there’s a good chance that they’re going to be able to offer you a lot more than the bigger firms that have many different legal departments.
This also applies to lawyers. While diversity and versatility may sound like a good idea on paper, when it comes to legal services, what matters more is the attorney’s knowledge on the area of law that’s relevant to your case.
There’s nothing worse than feeling like just another number, and in some of the larger firms, it can sometimes feel this way when you know hundreds of clients are walking in and out of those revolving doors all day long.
On the contrary, a boutique law firm, particularly if it’s smaller, will provide a warmer, more personal experience. Not only this, but larger firms often have several attorneys handling one case, and, while this may seem like a selling point, it often means that important information can end up lost in translation.
Multiple lawyers handling one case can result in breakdowns of communication which lead to misunderstandings, countless errors, and wasted time.
On the other hand, with a boutique firm, you’ll always know who you’ll be talking to, and it will always be the attorney who is best suited to your case. This allows you to build a strong relationship with your attorney which in turn sets your mind at ease and results in a better outcome for your case.
Paying for legal services is expensive, and, when you’re paying an attorney by the hour, you want to rest assured you’re not wasting your time and money.
Big firms tend to shuffle your documents around to different lawyers or require them to be reviewed by a senior partner - who are often extremely busy and hard to reach. This isn’t necessarily unintentional either - think about it, more time-wasting means more billable hours.
On the other hand, boutique firms are generally more transparent and efficient. Many prioritize success and time - for both the lawyer and the clients - and so they’ll work efficiently to ensure projects are concluded quickly.
Prominent boutique law firms
Boutique law firms can specialize in a range of areas, particularly those relating to financial issues or intellectual property, and attorneys specializing in such areas may be harder to find in the bigger firms:
- Guttman, Buschner, & Brooks (Washington, D.C.)
- Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner (Washington, D.C.)
- Fish & Richardson (Boston)
- Oblon (Alexandria, Virginia)
Labor and employment
- Boies, Schiller & Flexner (New York City)
- Irell & Manella (Los Angeles)
- Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman (New York City)
- Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan (Los Angeles)
- Williams & Connolly (Washington, D.C.)
- Caplin & Drysdale (Washington, D.C.)
Technology and venture capital
- Cooley LLP (Palo Alto)
- Fenwick & West (Mountain View)
- Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati (Palo Alto)
- Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian (Redwood City)
Boutique law firms are firms that specialize in a specific area of legal practice, and they tend to be smaller firms that employ a limited number of attorneys who are best-suited to offer legal advice in these areas.
Boutique firms have become increasingly popular throughout the 21st century and were able to withstand the financial crash better than the bigger corporations due to their specialized nature.
With boutique law firms you can usually expect a more focused area of expertise, a more personalized service, and ultimately greater efficiency.
While there are some cases in which a larger firm may be best suited to your case, if you have a legal issue relating to tax, employment, intellectual property, or any other complex economic issue, then a boutique firm could provide you with a more specialized service.
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