12 Things I Hate About Small Firm Practice

After almost five years of epic BigLaw drudgery and misery, I finally decided it was time to choose lifestyle over status and pay. In other words, I joined a small firm, a/k/a “a litigation boutique.” Trouble is, I’m realizing that my decision was completely flawed because it was based on the faulty assumption that the small firm I was joining would offer me something positive in exchange for each trade-off. Unfortunately, almost a year has passed, and I now realize that there’s been nothing but negatives. Lest any other BigLaw mid-level associate fall for the same foolishness, I’ve compiled a list of the things I hate about small firm practice:

1. I work just as much—for less pay. It used to take me 6.5 days of work per week to bill about 60 hours on two enormous cases. Now I spend the same amount of time trying to force 40 billables from the eight piddly cases I work on. I die a little inside every time I enter a 2.2 increment on my timesheet.

2. I miss my view. It was somehow more pleasurable to suffer on a daily basis against the backdrop of a 29th floor view of downtown Chicago. The long, dark winters seem even darker from my current office, which features a second floor view of the back of a weird old hotel.

3. Less people in the office means I’m easier to keep track of. Gone are the days when I could get away with rolling in hungover at 11:00 a.m. by simply putting on a suit and pretending I had an early status conference in state court.

4. One secretary and one paralegal for eight attorneys. My ego might never recover from how ridiculously difficult it was for me to figure out how to use the fax machine—and I still haven’t completely mastered printing Avery address labels. Not to mention the hellish experience of assembling multiple copy sets of exhibits for depositions and motions. Come to think of it, I have no idea why legal secretaries and paralegals aren’t on constant suicide watch.

5. No more word processing department. How in the hell am I supposed to figure out how to make a freaking table of contents for a brief in support of a motion for summary judgment?

6. No more docketing department. I have to actually file things myself now. I keep running into the docket clerks from my old firm in the Law Division filing lines, and they avoid making eye contact because they’re embarrassed for me.

7. The fact that everyone assumes I do insurance defense and worker’s comp when I tell them the size of my firm.

8. No more summer associates, which means no more Cubs games and free cocktail hours. And fewer dating prospects.

9. Clients actually call me directly. I had absolutely no idea how irritating they are. No wonder the partners at my old firm hated their lives so much.

10. Having to work on depressing things like foreclosures and collection actions, where the status calls seem like a law school reunion for the bottom half of my class. I can tell they’re all wondering why I’m slumming in Chancery.

11. Feeling actually responsible for the cases I work on.

12. Only one floor of offices. I sorely miss being able to seek privacy for certain types of bathroom issues in the always-empty women’s restroom on the desolate 28th floor of my old firm.


  • P-Nut

    A boutique is a combination of three factors: small size, narrow scope of practice, and high-end work. If you’re doing foreclosures and collections with an inadequate support staff, you’re not in a boutique. You’re in shitlaw. Welcome to the farm league.

    • Quadoz

      Having never been to ‘the top’ which I guess is BigLaw…it’s nice not knowing or needing all the status. Farm league it is P-Nut, and I’m loving it.

  • Quadoz

    Do criminal defense. Only the small stuff. Do DUI’s and tickets and minor narcotic possessions. Cash is easy and fast….of course I work a fulltime job during midnights for medical benefits and stable pay. But the other work is a nice boost to my vacation home fund.

    City Cop by Midnight, Rookie Lawyer by Day

    • Michael

      You’re smart, not like many other egotistical lawyers.

  • Ellen

    I may establish my own Practise soon. My father says I should NOT wait to see if I am to be a PARTNER, so he said I should strike out on my own. He is wiling to put up $30,000 to get me off the grounde, so I am going to go SOLO soon.

    Does anyone know anything about this for me? Is their a book I can read?

    • Deja

      Yes, there is a book – ABA publishes a book by Foonberg. “How to Start and Build a Law Practice.” Some of it is unique to him, but there are numerous good ideas. In Minnesota, there is a solo/small firm listserve and group, look to see if there is the equivalent group in your state, and get involved in it.

      • Michael

        Tell Daddy to keep his $30k it does not take that much to start a law firm. Get a virtual office for $350 a month. Bingo you have phones, a mailing location and a conference room to meet people in when you need to. Build out a web site for $5,000. Hook up with another marketing consultant. Work from your computer. Poof, you’re in business for less than $10k

    • Ellen’s Tenuous Grasp of Grammar

      You mean a practice; you may establish your own practice, with a C. So, capital S, new sentence, your father, for reasons known only to him (perhaps he enjoys watching live physical comedy), said you should strike out on your own. In pursuit of his own captive Lucille Ball show, he is willing to put up $30,000 to get you off the ground, no E.

      Is there (there, THERE, T. H. E. R. E.) a book you can read?

      Yes, Ellen. A dictionary.

      • Larry

        This woman is definitely worth a roll in the hay, even if she isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

      • I Hate Grammar Police

        Did it ever occur to you that Ellen might not be from the United States, hence her use of the “s” versus the “c.” That would also account for the Old English spelling of “grounde” versus ground. Maybe English isn’t her first language, explaining “their” instead of “there.”

        • Foss

          Who cares where she is from? The only relevant query is: does she hump on the first date? If yes, I’m there. If not, then I will hump someone else.

  • Dave

    This article was actually amusing for a change. Good job. Now more like this and less of that other crap.

  • Jim

    So many of these ring true for me.

    #3: getting yelled at for coming in at 8:45 am was a change, considering no one ever came in before 9:00 am at my Big Law job. (Head partner was a morning person, so he expected everyone to be a morning person).

    #6: I joined a “boutique” patent law practice and they put me in charge of electronic filing because they figured with all my experience, I must have electronically filed a bunch of patents. And was an expert at it. I wasn’t. Paralegals or secretaries filed everything at my Big Law firm.

  • Big law partner

    Your email demonstrates why you failed at the big firm. Actually being responsible is a negative? Give me a break.

    • Michelle Beth

      Your comment demonstrated why you are one sanctimonious dumb fuck. LF10 wrote an “email”? And you are a Big Law partner? Give us a break.

      • Lou

        I think that this can NOT be a bona fide va-jay-jay.

        If it is, I would think that men ought keep their private parts far away from it.

        • Gene

          I thought the entire post was in gest, I am surprised so many people took it at face value.

  • Small Law Partner

    More whining! Coddled associates whine at big firms when they do “worthless scut work” then whine at small firms when they have to do something that matters.

    Yes, small firm got rid of superflous secretaries typing useless memos in betwen gossip sessions. Now we have them skip the memos and just type the motions. Letters are shorter.

    We dumped the “diversity” administrator, the “management committee” and the Summer Program Administrator and take their salaries back into our bottom line instead.

    Plush offices? We rent at less plush places and use the extra cash to pay our own mortgages.

    Seual harassment? We can’t–not because of policies but because all our people are busy and everyone would know anyway.

    Drug abuse? We don’t have it: you cannot litigate well in a small firm and be on drugs. If we see it you’re gone.

    We hire only experienced associates (no more coddled summer clerks or “golly gee, what’s this?” first year associates. No decorative “ellen’s” here.).

    Anyone that asks about “benefits” in an interview other than to confirm health insurance is probably not who we want.

    If the interviewee can’t spit out legal jargon convincingly showing real world experience, we can’t use them. “So you ‘drafted’ a motion to dismiss once in 12 years?” Reject. “Really? You got the pro bono award for writing an appeal brief for a fifth time murderer but have never done a motion to compel or a deposition? How exciting! ” Reject. Numerals (Harold Besmont III) are a liability. So are low cut blouses and resume notes like “Hobbies” and references to “wine tasting.”

    Our associates are profitable (oh the horrors! I said profitable!) and we care because we are the partners supporting this practice.

    Associate loyalty? We are loyal to associates who are loyal to us. But we also know that profit is critical: we are not working to pay associates who don’t work or who want to sneak out early. And we know a thing or two about loyalty: When Big Law firms break up, as in SF’s Heller Ehrman, associates fell over themselves to demand every day of vacation, sick and so on pay. Even if the partners had to pay personally. Heller partners got no indulgences for being a gay/lesban/mom/disabled/age/whatever “friendly” place to work.

    We are too busy to know what anyone’s skin color/religion etc is. Are you good at being a lawyer? “You’re hired.”

    Do we have the leisure time that 3rd year document review associates do? No, but their leisure time is a false leisure: for alwyers who don’t realize their days as an untrained document review clerk with a JD are limited. Did they ever stop and wonder where the 12th year document review lawyers were? Nah. “Pass the chardonay and giggle at those hard working suckers doing real litgation.” We figure if you’re smart enough, you’ll realize that is a loser path. If not, its your career.

    We on the other hand, know our jobs will be here next year and the year after that. You keep whining. We’ll keep working. But don’t be surprised at year’s end when we decide we’ve heard enough.

    • Lou

      This dude has a lot of time on his hands. I think he ought to find a woman to keep those fingers busy.

    • N104

      Well said, as someone who is very much into corporate law and in-house counsel type roles, I think it is a good way to put into perspective that the diligence required to be a first year associate at a small firm really does go a long way.

      Minor (arguably) things, such as using a photocopier and fax machine are things which, sadly, many attorneys these days do not know how to even operate, let alone draft a decent motion. As a first year associate for the federal government, I have dealt with many attorneys in small firms who take advantage of interns (who, mind you, get paid nothing or peanuts for their hard work) for these types of administrative things.

      It’s a booming generation of interns who work long hours, in addition to attending law school full time, for little to nothing that are taken advantage of by attorneys who are incapable of running their own firms. I agree with almost everything you mentioned (especially the doc review bit!), and it is fair for a small firm partner to want someone who might not have all the answers, but is intelligent enough to realize the difference between the “loser” path, and the perks and experience which come from working in a small firm.

    • Heather

      Small Law Partner, you just said it all. Small firms are for people who are interested in practicing law, and are definitely NOT for those people who became lawyers to make a lot of money. From the sound of this article, I’d say the writer falls into the second category. Not happy in a big firm, not happy in a small firm. Maybe it’s the practice of law itself that you don’t care for. All this “being responsible for your clients” stuff. I mean, who needs that?

  • Small law Partner

    that’s why I’m working so hard: i want to retire with blondes, a beach house, and soak myself in alcohol and drugs.

  • Abby

    Working for small firms/solo practitioners is no walk in the park for the help, either. After spending my days prepping and filing bankruptcy cases for someone who charged $200/hour and paid me $7/hour to do all the work, I’m a bit leery about working for this type of firm. Then again, this guy also made me clock out to go to the bathroom, so maybe he was just a special kind of a-hole.

    • Christy

      Abby – this is true but I found this to be more of an issue at a big firm than a small, one lawyer office. I may do a lote of prepping of pleadings at the small firm; however, I am not micromanaged by a shit-stain associate who has not worked in law firms as long as I have feeling the need to tell me how to send pleadings to a clerk for filing.

  • small firm attorney

    This was well-written and interesting to read.

  • dharok

    Agreed. Those do make small firm practice trying at times. But now let me tell you about working for a small non-profit that supplied pro bono legal help. Multiple your frustrations x10!

    On the other hand, feeling as though you are making a significant positive impact upon the lives of your clients is of enormous personal satisfaction… not sure if it’s enough, but it’s enormous :)

  • evrenseven

    You forgot: You didn’t get paid because the client didn’t pay; client set unreasonable cap on a project that your principal/ partner acquiesced to to retain them; and the fact that you will never work for a prestigious firm again after the taint of shitlaw on you.