If you happen to subscribe to my Twitter feed, you’ll notice that I regularly post links to stories of interest in the legal press. If you look closely, you’ll notice that a great many of those stories pertain to developments in very large law firms. That’s not because I’m fascinated by BigLaw or because I think my subscriber base is either. It’s because that’s what gets published. The legal press pays a disproportionate amount of attention to large law firms — as do we all.
The best-known legal periodical, The American Lawyer, is so tightly intertwined with large firms that the 100 biggest are referred to as the AmLaw 100. ALM’s web-based publication, law.com, is heavy with large-firm content (though in fairness, it does have a Small Business page too). The UK has two periodicals that closely follow BigLaw, LegalWeek and The Lawyer. In Canada, it’s Lexpert. In Australia, it’s ALB Legal News, and so forth. But even purportedly general-interest legal periodicals also devote a substantial amount of space talking to and about lawyers in large operations. I’ve spent the last ten years editing a bar association magazine whose readers are mostly in firms of ten lawyers or fewer — but a look back over those issues would probably reveal a lot of coverage given to big firms.
If a periodical intentionally focuses on BigLaw, generally it’s because large-firm lawyers traditionally make a lot of money, so they’re attractive both as subscribers and as advertising targets. But why do many other legal publications over-emphasize big firms, relatively speaking? Mostly, it’s because those firms have both the motivation and the resources to engage with the media.
Large firms have marketing directors, PR experts, website personnel, even a growing number of social media mavens, all paid to raise the profile of the firm and its lawyers. So when your average overworked legal journalist goes out to search for story ideas and contacts, he or she finds the big firms all over the place — they’ve established a powerful presence on the landscape. Not only that, but their PR professionals handle all the work of media relations, leaving their lawyers free to focus on client work. Small-firm lawyers and solos, by contrast, generally leave a much smaller footprint in the places where journalists search for ideas and leads, and few can afford to devote otherwise billable time to engaging even the mainstream media, let alone the legal press. The end result is that the rich, so to speak, get richer.
But I think there’s more to it even than that. If our professional media outlets spend an unusual amount of time mooning over big-firm lawyers, it’s because the profession does too. The prevailing culture of the bar, for many years, has been to attach an unusual amount of prestige to big law firms and the lawyers who practise there.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we often tend to think that a lawyer in a large firm with a well-known brand and spacious offices in a big building downtown is somehow a superior product. Even small-firm or boutique lawyers, who may feel a certain degree of animus towards their big-firm rivals, take an outsized degree of pride from defeating one of them. There’s no rational basis for thinking that the size of a law firm has any bearing on the quality of the lawyers within it — yet that belief has infiltrated the way many lawyers think and behave. (Not the popular imagination, though. Atticus Finch didn’t work for a large firm. Neither did Perry Mason.)
Now, my point, as I hope you’ll appreciate, is nothing so hackneyed as big firms bad and small firms good. It’s a much narrower observation that small firms and solos are underrepresented in our professional media — and that this is not a good thing.
It’s not good for law students, reading Above The Law in class and thinking that the fascination with large firms and their payrolls is normal and healthy. It’s not good for new graduates who read legal magazines and newspapers and come to believe there’s something less admirable and prestigious about working in a smaller firm (or, heaven forbid, in a public-sector or law department capacity). It’s not good for the profession as a whole that the interests, priorities, cultures, and business habits of large-firm lawyers are presented as the default setting for private practice. And it’s not good for smaller practices, which count the majority of all lawyers among their ranks, that they don’t get to hear their stories told, their concerns addressed, their best practices circulated, and their career choices validated in proportion to their presence in the profession.
If there’s a solution here, it’s going to have to emerge from the ranks of these smaller-firm lawyers themselves — waiting for institutional publishers to change their editorial focus is not a good plan. Smaller practices need to find a way to amplify their voice and multiply their narratives within the profession as a whole. Maybe they need to help create their own media channel, pooling resources and enabling advertisers to find and support them. Maybe they need to harness the power of social media in ways that big firms haven’t figured out yet, to create the first truly online legal periodical through some innovative combination of blogs, RSS, Twitter and LinkedIn, and focus it on their issues. Maybe they need to figure out what the small-firm equivalent of Legal OnRamp would look like, and start recruiting their clients to join.
In any event, I’m inclined to think our current fascination with the size of a law firm will soon start to fade. As someone pointed out at the College of Law Practice Management’s Futures Conference last month, “big firm” and “small firm” are increasingly specious and distracting distinctions. To the extent we need to divide the bar — and it’s not always clear to me that we do — we should divide it along the lines of whether a firm serves a consumer client base or a corporate/institutional client base, because those really are very different types of businesses. That’d be a lot more useful than adding up how many lawyers use the firm’s stationery, and drawing unwarranted assumptions from the result.