Bigger Legal Firms vs. Small Boutique Firms: The Pros and Cons

No matter where you are in your legal career, there will come a time when you have to make a decision to use your expertise in a bigger legal firm or a smaller, boutique firm. This is especially true when you’re making a lateral move, as you’ll likely be looking at positions with the same level of required experience and responsibilities. In this case, there are a lot of factors to consider.

Here are some of the pros and cons of each kind of employer that you should consider when making your next move. 

Bigger Firms: Pros and Cons

Being an associate in a big firm at any point of your career can be extremely fruitful, but there are some concessions to make, especially if you are in the early stages of your career. 

Pro: Access to important resources or legal libraries is a huge plus in larger firms. Associates on all levels can each have a different area of expertise which provides immediate exposure to knowledge and case development. Andrea Zdralea, an Associate Practice Director here at Michael Page says, “Usually big firms have more sophisticated deals, primarily due to the fact they deal with billion-dollar transactions.” 

Con: With those larger deals comes greater responsibility and more staffers on the administrative side. This can be a con as the mid-level or junior associates take on more of the workload leaving less face-to-face time with the clients and partners themselves. 

Pro: Salaries are one of the leading reasons candidates will go back and forth on boutique vs. big firms. A pro for the larger firms is the higher salary potential. Zdralea mentions, “Top law firms are offering 5-20% salary increases and creating a bidding war.” A pay scale like that is especially important as continued talent shortages affect the entire job market. Bigger firms have high market base salaries along with an enticing bonus structure. 

Con: The con here comes in the form of a larger workload with more responsibilities on multiple cases at once. This also can limit work/life balance and lead to burnout more quickly than in smaller shops.

Boutique Firms: Pros and Cons

Smaller law firms can offer interesting case work and lead to a very rewarding career. The trade off here is that smaller firms really need to do the legwork for their clients.

Pros: In a smaller shop, the personal exposure to clients is a plus all on its own. To be able to personally connect with the companies or people being represented can make for more fulfilling work. “Associates in smaller firms would have the opportunity to work directly with clients and communicate with them beyond pitches,” Zdralea says. 

Cons: That direct impact and exposure to the represented parties also means that the schedule is based around your clients needs. Even though the billable hours in a small firm are fewer than those at the larger ones, that standard 8 hour day can easily turn into 10+ hours

Pros: Advancement in a legal career all the way up to partner is a goal many associates share. In a smaller firm it can be more attainable as there are less people between you and the partner. In some instances, a junior associate may be working directly alongside with the partner of the firm giving the opportunity to show off their batch of skills. Zdralea points out that you can, “build a strong foundation,” because of the hands-on experience. 

Cons: That increased visibility decreases the margin for error. This means having to own the decisions made and handling that responsibility professionally.

Why a Meeting is Always Important

The fact is that even when taking all of the above into account, each situation will be very different. The environment created by each partner, even within the same firm, can be varied. This is why Zdralea recommends interviewing with both small and large firms and meeting the partners you may be working with.  

As this can be a very nuanced and individualized journey, it may be helpful to work with a professional like Zdralea when making that next move in your career. You can get in touch with our expert team or browse our job listings to get started.

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