Most midsize and large law firms have structured themselves to offer a broad range of legal services. No matter what concern clients come in with, there is a lawyer within the firm who has the ability and expertise to address it. In a boutique firm, however, the attorneys all specialize in one niche area of practice.
A growing number of lawyers are setting up these smaller practices, choosing to focus the work of the entire firm on one area of the law. This enables them to market their entire firm as specialists, or the closest thing to the term "specialist" that is permitted in their jurisdictions.
Boutique Law Firm vs. Full-Service Law Firm
Small law practices are nothing new. The number of solo practitioners in the U.S. remained consistent from 1980 through 2005, according to a 2016 demographics report by the American Bar Association. The number of attorneys active in firms of two to five lawyers dwindled by 8 percent during that same time period, but a boutique firm isn't about size. It's about specialization.
Characteristics of a boutique law firm include:
- Specialization. Attorneys in boutique law firms are experts in their fields. All lawyers on staff focus on a single specialty, such as not-for-profit organizations, commercial litigation, or SEC investigations.
- Referral network. Should a client have a problem that doesn't fit into the firm's niche, his lawyer doesn't have the option of taking it on anyway. The client is referred to another boutique firm. Other firms then return this courtesy when their own clients need services outside their niche, creating a referral network among local firms.
- Small staff. Most, though not all, boutique law firms are small operations with limited staff. The National Law Journal highlighted two boutique law firms, both of which broke away from some of the nation's biggest firms. Five attorneys at Neal, Gerber, and Eisenberg in Chicago departed to form Chicago Law Partners, while 15 lawyers at LeClairRyan left to form Murphy & McGonigle.
- Competitive fees. Boutique law firms can charge lower fees by outsourcing many of the firm's business functions to external services rather than managing them in-house. This frees partners to focus on practicing law rather than dealing with administrative functions.
- Relationships. In addition to the referral network that boutique firms develop, they often foster closer relationships among the lawyers on staff. New lawyers have greater access to senior partners than they would at larger firms. This less formal structure and focus on relationship-building often appeal to clients.
The specialization of boutique law firms can create some stumbling blocks that full-service law firms don't have to face. When certain aspects of an existing case stray from a boutique firm's niche although the case itself conforms, the firm generally has to bring in specialists to deal with that particular area. This can drive up costs. In general, though, the structure of boutique law firms allows them to offer legal services at a lower price than full-service law firms that handle everything in-house.
Boutique Law Firms Emerge Globally
American firms are not the only ones undergoing this transition. In the last decade, boutique law firms in Asia have drawn business away from general practice firms. The shift from midsize and large law firms to boutique legal services is driven by a desire to reduce costs as well as to obtain the services of better attorneys with specialized experience.
No matter where they are located, boutique law firms offer a sense of community, relationship-building, and a change from the corporate business model that larger firms lack.