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Choosing the Right Size Law Firm

Does size matter? Michigan attorneys weigh in

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 the 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 practice area, you may want to consult with a small- or medium-sized firm. No matter what your legal issues are, when shopping for legal services you should consider qualities such as personalized attention, prompt service, research efficiency and technological resources. Lawyers representing small (25 or fewer), medium (26 to 150) and large (more than 150) firms present their perspectives on choosing the right size law practice for your needs.

A Call to Small

Boutique firms that specialize in one specific area, or several related areas, are the best choice for some clients. “We deal primarily with employment law issues, an area of the law that is constantly changing and can be extremely complex,” says Kathleen L. Bogas, president of the National Employment Lawyers Association and a partner with the Bloomfield Hills law firm of Eisenberg & Bogas, which employs eight attorneys. “Our clients come to us because they know we are experts in this particular area. They’re dealing with very personal, life-altering issues — getting fired, being victimized by sexual harassment and discrimination and the like — so personalized attention is crucial.”

Experience in a niche area of law draws some clients, but smaller firms also offer other advantages. According to BTI Consulting Group in Wellesley, Mass., which ranks the top 200 law firms based on 17 key factors that drive client relationships, an increasing number of Fortune 1000 companies are turning to small firms in all areas of legal representation. 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.”

That flexibility is often a function of the personalized care clients receive at small and midsize firms. “At a small firm, whoever picks up the phone will know at least a little bit about your case, will probably recognize you by face and even know something about your family,” says Deborah Gordon, chairman of the labor and employment section of the State Bar of Michigan, whose firm, The Law Offices of Deborah L. Gordon, employs four attorneys. “In a larger firm, the person who picks up the phone may have no idea who you are.”

Midsize Prize

Medium-size firms may offer the best of both worlds. “Midsize firms meld the strengths of large and small firms — personalized attention and a depth of knowledge,” says Eugene Driker, a senior partner with Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker, a 35-attorney firm that specializes in business litigation, real estate, corporate and estate planning law.

Driker, a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and a member of the American Law Institute, says his firm has consciously limited its size because it allows the lawyers to work at maximum efficiency without adding the layers of bureaucracy often associated with large law firms. However, that’s not always the case. 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.

“My experience is that the medium-size firms deliver a work product that is just as good, if not better, than the large firms and with greater efficiency, better service and quicker turnaround,” says Michael S. Khoury, vice chair of the business law section and a former chair of the computer law section of the State Bar of Michigan.

Khoury is one of 90 attorneys at Southfield-based Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss, which specializes in business law. “Midsize firms tend to staff cases properly, both in terms of expertise and the number of attorneys and staff involved in the process,” he says. “This attention to efficiency saves the client from unnecessary expenses and makes the midsized firms much more competitive in the marketplace.”

Lawyers at Large

The biggest advantage of a big law firm is the breadth of expertise and services under one roof, which can be a significant consideration if your case is complex.

“Today, the necessity of hiring a large firm for labor law issues relates to the fact that the whole area has become so complex and regulated in a way it wasn’t even 10 years ago,” explains Beverly Hall Burns, a member of the National Council of School Attorneys, Michigan Council of School Attorneys and deputy CEO at Miller Canfield Paddock & Stone, which employs 336 attorneys. “For example, we have attorneys who specialize in Americans with disabilities issues or benefits issues — you wouldn’t find that at a small firm.”

“Clients appreciate lawyers who understand their business culture, their products and their services,” says Joseph Ritok Jr., a fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, and one of 340 attorneys at Dykema Gossett. “I work with clients from retail to manufacturing to service industries, so I get experience in all different areas. You won’t find that breadth of expertise at a small firm.”

The Bottom Line: Needs Assessment

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 Gordon says, “What you need is good lawyers willing to fight for you if you’re a plaintiff on the litigation side. You need experience and expertise to win your case—and that can be found at any-size firm.”

For more information on this area of law, see our general litigation overview.

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