Does Law Firm Size Matter?

New York attorneys offer tips on choosing the right one for you

By Jennifer Haupt

When choosing a law firm, does size matter? That depends. If you want to be legally represented by a firm that has global presence and most resources under one roof, bigger may indeed be better. On the other hand, if you need a lawyer who limits his or her practice to a specialized area, such as immigration or labor law, you may want to consult with a small- or medium-sized firm. No matter what your legal concerns are, when shopping for counsel you should consider qualities such as personalized attention, prompt service, research efficiency and technological resources. Lawyers representing small (15 or fewer), medium (16 to 350 attorneys) and large (more than 350) firms present their perspectives on choosing the right-size practice for your needs.

A Call to Small

Small “boutique” firms that specialize in one specific area are the best choice for some clients. “We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Deborah Jean Notkin, national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and a partner at Barst & Mukamal, which employs 11 attorneys. “We only deal with immigration law, which is as complex—if not more so—than the tax code,” Notkin says. Attorneys at Barst & Mukamal speak 20 different languages, and the firm established units geared specifically toward Japanese, Chinese, Korean and South American clients. “Basically, people come to us because they know we are the best in [immigration law].”

Experience in a niche area of law draws some clients, but small firms offer other advantages, too. According to BTI Consulting Group in Wellesley, Mass., which ranks the top 200 law firms based on 17 key factors that drive client relationships, more and more Fortune 1000 companies are turning to small firms in all areas of legal expertise. Why? In a word: flexibility.

“Clients note that small firms are better at adopting new ways of doing things, based on what’s most convenient for individual cases or client needs,” says Michael Rynowecer, president of BTI. “There’s generally less bureaucracy at small firms, so they can be more flexible.”

Another benefit small firms offer clients is the ease of developing relationships with all of the major players. “Clients want someone to pay attention to them, which they get at a small firm,”explains Stanley Arkin, a founding member and senior partner with Arkin Kaplan & Cohen. Arkin, a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and the author of Business Crime says he has always preferred to work in a small firm. “At a large firm, there may be more conflicts with other clients or other relationships, which may inhibit devotion to any one client.”

Rynowecer says even large companies are turning to smaller legal firms to find those personal relationships. “At a large firm, a client may only work with one or two partners, and many of their needs are relegated to junior associates,” he explains. “The partners are more likely to share clients at a small or midsize firm.”

Midsize Prize

Medium-size firms may provide the personalized client service of a small firm along with the staff and financial resources of a much larger firm.

“Most people are either attracted to the intimacy of a small firm or the broad resources and reputation of a large firm,” says Suzanne Lowe, president of Expertise Marketing, a Concord, Mass., consulting firm that conducted a five-year study on how professional-service firms attract and retain clients. “A medium-size firm has to prove to clients that they are the best of both worlds: small and local, [but with] the broader resources of a large firm.”

Midsize law firms increasingly succumb to offers to merge, however. Hildebrandt International, a professional-services consulting group with offices throughout the United States and in London, reports 49 domestic law firm mergers occurred in 2005 — a jump of more than 35 percent from the number of mergers in 2003, indicating a bigger-is-better trend among law firms. (New York and California remained the strongest areas for mergers in 2005, with a total of eight deals in New York and six in California.) Midsize firms are often pressured to expand.

“A firm of our reputation and size is constantly approached with merger offers by larger firms,” says Jay Neveloff, a partner with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, a full-service law firm with offices in New York and Paris. Neveloff, with more than 30 years of experience in real estate law, is a member of the Real Estate Advisory Board of the Practicing Law Institute. He’s a former vice chairman of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Partnerships, Joint Ventures and Other Investment Vehicles and a member of the American Law Institute. Among his clients are Donald Trump and the New York Life Insurance Company.

Kramer Levin was established in 1968 with six partners and eight associates. To compete with larger firms, Kramer Levin trained and promoted young lawyers, piling responsibility onto each as the need arose. Now the firm has more than 300 lawyers and is allied with a top London law firm, Berwin Leighton Paisner, which has more than 40 lawyers. Though growth was inevitable, the partners’ narrow focus on excellent service and lawyer recruitment has led to exceptional results for clients. “A global presence for law firms is important in today’s business environment,” says Neveloff. “We choose to accomplish that global presence through alliance partners and affiliations, instead of growing the size of our firm at a rate that would sacrifice the quality of our staff or client services. Our business plan is to strategically cherry-pick partners along the way. We see no advantage in giving up our culture and profitability simply for the sake of growing, yet we know you have to have a certain critical mass.”

Midsize firms must strike a balance between small-firm rapport and large-firm amenities. “The broad resources of a large firm can be an advantage if you have a client-focused relationship, but if you don’t it means nothing,” Rynowecer adds. “Some of the largest organizations are using midsize firms because that’s where the close relationships and trust are, in addition to the depth of resources.”

“A client is sometimes really happiest being a bigger fish in a smaller sea,” says Judith Siegel-Baum, a fellow of The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. Siegel-Baum is a partner with Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen, a midsize full-service law firm with 43 attorneys at its New York office and more than 300 attorneys in eight offices nationwide. “The quality of work may be no different at the midsize firm, but the clients may receive more attention from partners rather than associates,” Siegel-Baum says. “In estate planning, one of my areas of concentration, this becomes even more important because clients’ unique personal situations and choices are always addressed by a partner.”

Peter Canellos, chairman of the New York State Bar Association Tax Section, says, “We don’t do general counsel work, but for business transactions that need to be handled very quickly, responsiveness is key.” Canellos is head of the tax department at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz, a business law firm with about 200 attorneys. Despite its relatively small size, Wachtell can handle even the largest matters efficiently because of its internal structure and approach to transactional practice. “A client will contact a particular partner who promptly assembles a team with representation from all relevant disciplines,” says Canellos. “Everyone in the firm is essentially available for work on deals, and persons are added to deal teams as needed. It’s a crisis-driven firm, so everything is done on a very fast track.”

The boutique firm of Vladeck Waldman Elias & Engelhard has grown from a mom-and-pop practice to 20 attorneys during the past 50-some years, but Anne Charney Vladeck, recipient of Columbia Law School’s Medal of Excellence and the American Bar Association’s Margaret Brent Award, doesn’t see the firm growing much more. “Plaintiff’s employment law is a specialized area where the laws and regulations are continually evolving — we do one thing extremely well and growing larger won’t make us better at what we do,” says Vladeck, whose parents founded Vladeck, Waldman Elias & Engelhard. “We’re small enough that we get to know our clients personally, yet large enough that if one attorney isn’t available another knows the case well enough to cover the client’s needs.”

Lawyers at Large

The biggest advantage of a large firm is the breadth of expertise and services under one roof, which is a significant consideration when it comes to broad disciplines such as corporate law or real estate.

“The small-firm real estate lawyer is not an endangered species, just a marginalized one,” says Andrew J. Weiner, a partner with Morrison Foerster, a multi-disciplinary law firm with more than 1,000 lawyers around the world and more than 300 attorneys in the New York office alone. Weiner serves as chair of the Real Estate Group of Lex Mundu, the world’s leading organization of independent law firms, and has expertise in coordinating real estate aspects of multi-property, multi-jurisdictional projects such as leveraged buyouts and corporate acquisitions. “Real estate today is increasingly bi-coastal and international, and is mutating into a capital-markets practice,” he says. “It requires a range and depth of expertise beyond the scope of traditional real estate law practices, and is best serviced by law firms with sophisticated finance, corporate finance, [mergers & acquisitions] and tax expertise, not just traditional ‘dirt law’ expertise.”

Jonathan Mechanic, chairman of the real estate department at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson, a full-service, multidisciplinary law firm with approximately 600 lawyers in offices in New York, Washington, D.C., London, Paris and Frankfurt, says, “Responsiveness is key to any lawyer-client relationship, regardless of the size of the firm.” Mechanic is a member of the executive committee of the board of governors of the Real Estate Board of New York, a member of the Real Estate Roundtable, and co-author of The Commercial Office Lease Handbook published by the American Bar Association. “Clients want to know that their problems are your problems, and that you are going to respond to them in a timely fashion,” he says. “In today’s world of the Internet, BlackBerries and cell phones, response time has become significantly shorter. [Clients] don’t even want to wait an hour— they want an immediate response.”

Needs Assessment: the deciding factor

In the final analysis, a law firm’s size reveals nothing about its capability. Potential clients should analyze the scope of their legal needs, the importance of responsiveness and personal attention, and the firm’s financial and technical resources. As Lowe says, “No matter what the firm size, the quality of legal advice depends to a great extent on the individual counsel assigned to your case.

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