What Size Law Firm Should I Choose?

Should you go with a one-man band or a 200-lawyer orchestra?

A hungry army of termites tears through your neighbor’s house, then marches on to yours, where it sets up camp. The neighbor seems unconcerned, but you wonder if their inattention led to your nightmare. Time to consult an attorney, you decide.

But looking through the Yellow Pages is daunting. Should you go with a one-man band or a 200-lawyer orchestra?

Does size matter?

It depends who you ask. The most important thing is getting what you want from an attorney—and flexibility and responsiveness top the list, according to BTI Consulting Group, based in Massachussetts, which publishes an annual ranking of the top 200 law firms.

The definitions of small, medium and large firms vary, depending on where you live. In New York City, a large firm would have hundreds of attorneys, but in Seattle, small is 20 or fewer attorneys, medium is 21 to 50, and large is more than 50.

When is bigger better?

For companies with complicated issues, a large firm might be the way to go, says Fredric Tausend, a partner with Preston Gates & Ellis, which has 228 attorneys in Seattle and more than 425 in its 11 offices—including Portland, San Francisco and Beijing.

“When it comes to responding quickly, large firms usually have great resources,” says Tausend. “Our firm has developed highly sophisticated technology for research, production and examination of documents. ... All this is of great advantage to companies that find themselves involved in complex commercial or class-action litigation.”

Large firms also boast a breadth of expertise and services. “A large firm like ours has tremendous flexibility due to the sheer volume of resources that cut across a number of areas of practice,” notes Michael Morgan, a corporate law partner with Lane Powell, which has 111 attorneys in its Seattle office and a total of 165 nationwide. “I often work with our human-resources group on employment and benefit matters and with our tax group on sophisticated [financial] transactions.”

Good things also come in smaller packages

Many clients believe small firms are more flexible and convenient, according to the BTI survey. “There’s generally a lot less bureaucracy at small firms, so they can remain keenly focused on the client’s objectives,” says Terry Abeyta, a partner at Abeyta Nelson in Yakima, which has four attorneys and specializes in plaintiff ’s personal injury cases.

Small firms may offer general services, or they may specialize in one area or a few related ones.

“Going to trial is an intense environment for clients, and they want to develop a close and trusting relationship with their attorney,” says Bob Christie, founder of Christie Law Group in Seattle, a boutique firm with four attorneys that specializes in civil rights liability claims, employment law, professional liability and general litigation. “My clients are hiring me primarily, and they trust that my team reflects my values.”

Are midsize firms the best of both worlds?

Some large organizations opt for midsize firms because they believe they will find close, trusting relationships, in addition to a depth of resources, according to the BTI survey.

“Our firm’s culture is defined by being large enough so that our attorneys represent a variety of expertise, and small enough so that we all know each other,” says James Dickens, a partner at Miller Nash, which has 34 attorneys in its Seattle office and a total of 114 lawyers, including its Portland and Vancouver, Wash., offices. “I know who does what best, and when a client calls me with a problem, I know exactly whom to send them to.”

Many midsize firms started out small but didn’t stay that way.

“We’ve grown from a boutique of one attorney to 21 attorneys over the course of 26 years, expanding the scope of our work but keeping the focus on real estate and land use,” notes Peter Buck, a partner with Gordon & Buck in Seattle. “We can best serve our clients by being large enough to have a team of experts to draw from, but small enough so that we really do feel like a team—there’s no internal competition between attorneys, as can happen at a larger firm. That team atmosphere allows us to give quick, responsive service.”

In the final analysis, does size really matter when you just want to figure out who’s to blame for a termite infestation? It may not be the most important factor.

“The ability to respond to clients quickly and [do it] in a way that best suits their particular needs is key when it comes to great client service, and you can probably find those qualities at any size firm,” says Buck. “The difference is more a question of culture, values and principles than it is size.”

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