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What It is Like Working in a Boutique Law Firm

published January 04, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 696 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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A boutique firm is usually comprised of a group of experienced lawyers practicing in a specialized area of law. Sometimes the firm is organized around several related legal areas. A boutique, for example, may offer expertise in patent, trademark and other intellectual property services. Less common are boutiques that focus on all the needs of a particular type of client. This type of boutique firm might bill itself as a full-service law firm for landlords or foreign corporations trying to do business in the United States.

What It Is Like Working In A Boutique Law Firm

While boutique firms tend to have fewer attorneys, small size is not a defining feature. Rather, these firms are characterized by a focus on specialized legal services and a commitment to remain at a manageable size. Boutique firms generally do not try to service all of a client's legal needs. They instead attempt to provide high quality legal services in a niche market, such as entertainment, insurance, immigration, employment or worker's compensation matters, just to name a few types of typical boutique firms. The boutique firm survives by building a reputation for providing expert-level legal services in a particular field beyond that which local law firms can provide.

Some smaller firms that handle many different types of legal matters are calling themselves "boutiques." These firms are trying to bank on the boutique mystique, i.e., a reputation for having highly skilled and knowledgeable lawyers in a particular field. Although these self-styled firms may handle a wide variety of matters, because of their small size, they usually aren't full-service law firm, but neither are they true boutiques. The mere fact that a law firm calls itself a boutique does not make it one.

True boutique firms afford associates many advantages. Senior lawyers and partners at these firms have a high level of expertise in their field. Generally, attorneys achieve some level of success or recognition on the local, state or federal level before deciding to join or form a boutique. Many reach a point in their careers where their expertise and reputation were solid enough to entice large-firm clients to shift a portion of work to them at a new and smaller firm. The associate, who is essentially apprenticing under a recognized expert in the field, benefits in a myriad of ways. Because there are probably few issues in the field that the expert has not encountered, the rate at which associates learn and develop technical skills is high. Associates often cite the superior training at the boutique firm as an advantage over that provided at larger or full-service firms. Boutique firms do not typically hire many inexperienced associates. As a result, training takes on additional importance because a significant investment is made and risk taken with each younger lawyer. As an added motivation to have well-trained associates, the boutique's reputation for providing better quality legal services in a specific field can be destroyed by one associate's mishandling of a matter.

One appeal of the boutique is that all the attorneys in the firm have strong resources in each other. Given the combined years of experience in a particular field, there are few arguments or contentions that have not been previously addressed. A related advantage is that these firms have excellent brief banks and written source material. Less experienced attorneys have a starting point for virtually any legal issue that may arise. Young associates can adapt and improve these models or, in instances where a case has a new wrinkle, use them as a checklist to ensure that the important issues have been addressed.

Expectations are high for each lawyer keeping abreast of the latest developments in the field, which includes monitoring legislation that could affect clients. Clients expect that lawyers at boutique firms have a higher level of knowledge and expertise, and other law firms using the boutique as a consultant or co-counsel expect that the attorneys at the boutique will know more than they could find out by a reasonable amount of research. Associates literally have no choice but to be informed and be on top of their game.

Experts tend to gravitate towards boutique firms and slackers tend to leave. Because the caliber of attorneys working within the firm is high, incompetence is not tolerated, particularly since the firm's reputation rides on its expertise. Unlike a general law firm setting, there is less dead weight and less tolerance for attorneys who do not pull their weight intellectually or by work-load.

Boutique firms tend to be less bureaucratic. There may not be established policies on issues traditionally addressed in medium or large law firms, like raises, maternity/paternity leave, or dating within the firm. The lack of guidelines can be a mixed blessing to associates, operating to their benefit or their detriment. On the plus side, a highly-regarded associate may be able to help shape policy in a more progressive manner than might be available elsewhere. On the other hand, with non-standardized policies there is more room for subjectivity in applying them. This sometimes leaves the associate without a benchmark or a guide for judging performance or understanding why different rules apply to different members of the firm.

Nevertheless, a limited bureaucracy means that lawyers can handle large and small clients as they see fit. There aren't the staffing, billing or credit disputes that frequently arise in large firms. Less bureaucracy often results in a faster turn-around time for clients. Clients see this service aspect of a boutique firm as a positive reason to take a portion of work from the full-service firm.

Attorneys at boutique firms tend to enjoy collegial relationships with other members of the bar. In many cases (although it is not an absolute rule), there is little competition among firms for the same clients. An attorney at firm A refers his client to boutique firm B for the handling of certain immigration matters. Firm A has little worry that the boutique firm will take the client because the services offered by the boutique are limited to immigration-related work. The situation works in the reverse, too. Boutique lawyers refer out all work outside the firm's area of expertise. Other attorneys recognize that boutique lawyers are a good source for referrals. The result is that members of the boutique firm enjoy relatively cordial relationships with outside lawyers, without the complications brought about by fears of client-stealing or just serious competition.

Lawyers at boutique firms tend to take their work more seriously. Many are there by choice, and not just because they ended up there or needed to work there for the paycheck. There is less of an inertia factor—where people stay at a firm simply because they don't leave. Other lawyers at the boutique firm are likely to take your work more seriously than would comparable partners at a general practice firm. One immigration attorney noted that while at the general practice firm, immigration work was looked at as a necessity, not a moneymaking part of the firm, and therefore not accorded the respect paid to other groups. After joining an immigration boutique firm, this lawyer noted that immigration is the moneymaking practice for the firm and accorded due respect.

Just as the expectation factor is high for lawyers at boutiques, so too is the credibility factor. Clients, other lawyers, and sometimes judges, expect that boutique attorneys know what they are talking about and are aware of changes and trends in the law in their field of expertise. This is a terrific advantage if indeed you know what you are doing.

Some boutique firms, despite their smaller size, pay at or above market salaries. This may be due to the increased education level or specialized technical training that many boutique firms require of their associates. Some firms require that lawyers be members of particular organizations, such as the patent bar. Others require that the lawyers undertake significant responsibility working with or maintaining involvement in associations or national groups important to their field. The premium salaries also reflect the high demand for experienced lawyers in particular fields, like employment, immigration or patent work. (Many boutique firms have been hit hard by the exodus of lawyers to in-house or general counsel positions.) A boutique firm that has a comparatively small number of attorneys may pay more than general practice firms of comparable size.

Some associates at boutique firms believe that the quality of life is higher at a boutique firm. They point to factors such as the smaller firm size, a high level of respect and collegiality among the lawyers, and shared backgrounds or interests in particular areas of study. Several lawyers, for example, might have a background in genetics. This kind of shared expertise leads to relationships that have a dimension often missing from non-boutique firms where the only commonality might be their paycheck or family situation. The associate's overall quality of life, however, still appears to be shaped primarily by the particular group of lawyers with whom the associate works, whether that group is found in a boutique firm or not.

There are disadvantages or potential negatives for an associate to consider. An associate at a boutique firm is less likely to have the opportunity to experience and learn other areas of the law. The associate may be left with some lingering questions about fields of practice that might be more fulfilling. An associate may practice employment defense, but have a strong interest in healthcare. Once at the boutique firm, the associate will have fewer opportunities to combine these interests or explore another area of law entirely. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for an associate at a full-service firm to switch practice groups or gravitate from litigation towards transactional work. This ability to transfer or gradually take on other types of matters is not generally possible at a boutique.

The associate will likely have little experience in other disciplines, which might have provided a more well-rounded base from which to assess tangential issues in a client's legal matter. For example, it is only through experience, that an associate might spot a potential antitrust problem in an intellectual property matter. This, however, is an instance where the boutique lawyer can draw on the strong relationships with lawyers outside the firm.

Another downside (depending on how you look at it) is that attorneys who have practiced for the same amount of time are not necessarily paid in lockstep. Prior experience is a factor in the pay scale, as are the other degrees or certifications that the attorney may hold. Again, this introduces a subjectivity factor that is not prevalent in full-service or large law firms (although this too is changing).

The future direction of the specialty practiced by the boutique may also be a drawback. Significant statutory or regulatory changes could eliminate the need for your work or limit the client base. There are some areas that will continue to expand—entertainment, intellectual property, employment, immigration are a few examples. However, history shows that all legal areas do not have the same staying power. When the federal government eliminated the RTC agency, all the work in the field was virtually eliminated. Keeping your eye on trends and understanding the impact of new legislation or case law is mandatory.

Partnership considerations should be evaluated earlier by an associate at a boutique firm. Boutique firms tend to remain focused by managing growth. Many specifically avoid rapid expansion. Because the partner to associate ratio tends to be higher at boutique firms, the associate's chances of becoming a partner are diminished. In addition, factors governing partnership decisions are more nebulous in a boutique firm. It is unlikely that there are written policies on these issues or a significant history of associates making partner, which presents some obstacles for an attorney coming up the ranks.

Law students often ask whether they should interview with a boutique firm after graduation from law school. The answer depends on the student's experience. Boutique firms want lawyers who, in addition to their J.D. degree, have significant work experience or advanced degrees. Many firms actively recruit Ph.D.s or Masters' level graduates. Even students with these credentials are not guaranteed a job with a boutique firm. There simply are not many first year associates at boutiques.

Some students are fairly sure about the area in which they want to practice and the boutique firm may be a good option for them. Before going to law school, one student worked as a human resources director. This person now wants to change the direction of his career and become an employment lawyer. He may have worked with or hired employment lawyers as part of his job and have a realistic view of what employment lawyers do. Scientists working in a corporate laboratory might attend law school and then work for a boutique firm to gain experience. Ultimately, they will be able to serve the corporation in an entirely new capacity. The experience gained at the boutique firm is one step for the scientist or technical expert. These people probably have a better idea than the average law student of what interests them, and the level of satisfaction they will derive from that work.

Aside from the students who have definite career objectives, working for a boutique firm right out of law school may not be advisable. You will never have the opportunity to sample other types of legal work that might be more interesting or fulfilling, and you may feel at a disadvantage as a first year boutique associate because virtually everyone will know a lot more than you do. While the same is true at general practice firms, at those firms there may be several others at your level or just above who also have little or no substantive knowledge. A boutique firm will not generally bring in an entire class of first year or second year lawyers.

Keep in mind that it generally takes a period of time to figure out what you do and do not do well. Your strengths might not be compatible with the work you are doing for the boutique. There is less opportunity for you to change practice groups and stay with the boutique. Although changing your practice field and your firm is always an option, you may not be given full credit by your new firm for the prior boutique experience. Other than choosing right the first time, one way to get around this dilemma is to find a practice area that is complimented by your boutique experience. For example, if you practiced tax work with a boutique, you might want to consider estate planning. You can turn your tax background into an advantage in your new job and negotiate for full credit to be given by the new firm.

A law student, or even an associate considering a move to a boutique, must take into account recent trends in the marketplace. Large firms (including those with a mega-firm mentality) are growing and staying competitive with boutiques by acquiring or merging with successful boutique firms. This move enables the large firm to eliminate strong competition in a particular area, and to heavily market the high level of expertise now existing within the full-service firm. In this situation, the associate loses some of the advantages of working at the boutique. There might be differences in how associates are trained, evaluated, or selected to work in the group. There is less control over the handling of clients. The number of people evaluating the associate for partnership has now increased, with less opportunity for the associate to know these other partners. It is wise to consider the merger potential and to ask questions of the partnership as to future growth and business goals before accepting an offer from a boutique.

Finding a job with a boutique firm requires that you do a few things differently. Remember first that true boutique firms value experience and knowledge and do not hire many first year lawyers. A review of web sites for various boutiques shows that marketing the "lengthy experience" or the "average years of attorney experience" is common. Don't get discouraged if your search takes somewhat longer or requires more legwork than you anticipated. It may also be that the boutique firm is a goal to which you aspire after you have practiced for a few years. If that is your plan, get good experience at a reputable firm and be sure of the area of law in which you want to practice.

That said, many lawyers rely on the boutique firm's reputation in deciding where to apply and interview. Good boutique firms are not plentiful. Lawyers at full-service or medium firms will likely have direct experience or at least knowledge of the big players for a given practice area. You may be interested in working for a plaintiff's labor firm. By asking around, you will likely come up with a short list of the boutique firms that enjoy a good reputation.

Another good way to find and target boutique firms is by using a headhunter. Some headhunting firms specialize in particular areas of law. These people are familiar with who is doing what and where. By talking with more than one headhunter, you may glean information about the reputation, level of satisfaction of the attorneys, and other intangible benefits or draw-backs of working at a particular boutique. Ask these headhunters if (and why) many attorneys leave a particular boutique. These headhunters have excellent inside information that will help you in your decision making.

Once you have narrowed in on a few boutique firms, focus your research on the firm's founding partners. They, more than anything else, will dictate the culture of the firm. Learn about the legal careers of these people. Make discreet inquiries into the temperament and reputation of these lawyers. The smaller environment of the boutique means that it is doubly important for you to respect and tolerate senior attorneys.

Your interview with a boutique firm will focus on your familiarity with and level of knowledge in the area of law in which the firm specializes. You must know what subjects are hot and what people are talking about in this practice field. This would include legislative trends, market trends and popular culture, if that impacts this area of law. This is especially the case if you are interviewing for a technology-related boutique. You may want to review industry newsletters or magazines or search online at sites like, which provide channels for finding out what is going on and where. You also need to have a clear understanding of where you see yourself five and ten years from now. Remember, people generally join a boutique for specific career reasons. If you cannot articulate those reasons in the interview, you will not get the job.

Given trends in law firm mergers, you may want to inquire of the boutique about immediate or long-term plans for growing the firm. Find out if limiting growth is a goal to which the principle partners are committed.

See 20 Reasons Why There Are No Such Thing as “Lifestyle” Boutique Law Firms and Why Boutique Law Firms Can Be Much More Dangerous Than Larger Law Firms for more information.

Boutique firms are a good option for some attorneys, but they are not for everyone. As in any job search, you must know the facts and what you are about to take on. Armed with this information, making the move to a boutique may be a satisfying direction in your career.


Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit

published January 04, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 696 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.