Bye-Bye Big Firm

By Dana Olsen

Move over, Big Law. Small Law is in. And the trend has proven to be more than a temporary reaction to the 2008 financial meltdown. Four years later, corporate lawyers are flocking to small firms.

Some lawyers call it disaggregation, and it reflects a change in the way the legal industry operates. Small firms are flourishing because clients’ demands have evolved over the years. Rather than relying on one firm and paying for a package of legal needs, clients are turning to different firms, and in some cases to legal support businesses, for different tasks. While the economic downturn certainly encouraged clients to search for more cost-effective legal representation, many clients had already come to think that they were throwing money away by sending all their work to big firms.

The key has been the unbundling of legal services. This allows legal departments to match specific tasks with the right service providers. Converts point to high-priced first-year associates as an example of the problem with big firms. Some clients unknowingly pay nearly the same hourly rate for these inexperienced lawyers to review documents and perform discovery as they pay for partners to, say, write briefs and hold settlement conferences. By contrast, small firms aren’t saddled with the need to train armies of associates on the client’s dime.

The unbundling of tasks has also permitted firms to tap new technology to perform time-consuming jobs. They now rely on software to help speed some of the most burdensome e-discovery jobs, like document production and review, rather than hit up clients with first-year associate rates.

Beth Anisman has watched the evolution over the past decade. She was a lawyer for Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. before the financial firm declared bankruptcy in 2008; then she became the chief operating officer for the legal department of Barclays Capital Inc. She spent years managing legal operations for the two financial powerhouses before she struck out on her own to found B&Co Consulting in New York, which advises corporate lawyers on how to manage their clients’ needs. Much of her current work consists of advising corporate lawyers on which law firms and agencies to hire for which tasks.

Anisman advocates splitting up work and using small firms whenever possible. Before clients began breaking apart legal services, many would pay one brand-name law firm a huge fee to perform all legal duties. "Clients are smarter about how they manage their legal accounts," says Anisman. "They started to say to themselves, ‘What did I just buy?’ "

Consultant Peter Zeughauser has observed the same phenomenon from his perch in California. "I think big corporations are more careful about who they hire for what work," says the legal strategist, who founded Newport Beach–based Zeughauser Group in 1995. "They won’t automatically hire big firms, which is what they used to do. They’ve become more sophisticated, which means they hire firms that are right for each individual matter.

"There’s a lot of pressure from the general counsel’s office on the lawyers in the department to keep costs down," Zeughauser continues. "For a lot of the day-to-day work that needs to be done, they’re hiring small firms more and more."

That’s the case at American International Group, Inc. Eric Kobrick, AIG’s deputy general counsel, says he began hiring small firms to work for the insurance giant in 1997, the day he walked in the door. "The old structure—an hourly rate presented with no detail—has never been acceptable," Kobrick says. "Small firms, in general, are more flexible. They’re able to use rate flexibility, and still provide excellent service."

But money isn’t everything. In fact, some small firms take umbrage at the suggestion that what they offer is slashed rates. Kathryn Ellsworth, a former Dewey Ballantine partner who left the mammoth firm to cofound a 15-lawyer shop, says her firm’s marginally cheaper pricing is one small part of the equation. "We do the same work [as big firms], and we pay our lawyers the same," says Ellsworth, who cofounded Grais & Ellsworth in 2007. "We don’t want clients to hire us because we’re cheaper; we want them to hire us because we’re better."