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Lexis+ AI
James Lavan

Executive Director, Buchanan Law

Big law or boutique: what’s the best move?

Big law or boutique: what’s the best move?


James Lavan weighs up pros and cons over pursuing the boutique firm path

Lateral moves between law firms increasingly feature of most legal CVs: just take a look at your legal connections on LinkedIn. From newly qualified lawyers (NQs) who have been actively targeted by recruiters, to more experienced partners and associates that have sought a fresh career challenge, a new city, or a different culture – career mobility marks out today’s successful lawyers.

Among the diverse factors to consider when contemplating a move of your own is the size of firm. This is particularly true if it involves one person changing from a career at a big full-service law firm with multiple offices or hundreds of lawyers by relocating to at a small specialist boutique with less than twenty fee-earners in one location. Or vice versa.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every lawyer who fancies something bigger or smaller: both options have distinct advantages and disadvantages with much depending on the preferences, priorities and personality of each individual, and critically, the scale and scope of their ambition. Ultimately, what they value most in their future careers is the critical factor.

So, what points are key in helping you to make the right decision? If you are thinking about what a boutique firm might offer, there is much to consider.

Seeking specialism

Should you find yourself longing for the rewards of a more niche practice area - such as litigation, intellectual property, employment, tax, or immigration - boutique firms invariably provide an ideal platform for those seeking the opportunity to specialise. In short, they offer interesting work that often leads to a very rewarding career. Taking this step will enable you to delve much deeper into practice areas that align more closely with your passions and interests.

Achieving autonomy

It is perhaps self-evident that boutique firms offer a much more intimate work environment, providing solicitors with an unusual combination of collegiality, increased autonomy and decision-making authority. If a closer-knit, small team environment in which your individual contributions have a direct and tangible impact, then a boutique firm might well be the right choice for you.

Balancing better

Big Law firms are renowned for demanding, sometimes punishing work schedules with high billable hours targets and routine late nights spent at the office desk. If you find yourself yearning for a better work-life balance without compromising on the quality or challenge of your legal work, then a boutique firm may provide a more flexible environment tailored to your needs. But remember size does not always equate with a good work-life balance: some boutiques may demand just as much from you as their bigger counterparts.
Rewarding relationships

Boutique firms typically enable more direct relationships between solicitors and their clients. This personal connection with people can make for more fulfilling work. Regardless of practice area, boutiques offer a more personalised approach to legal representation, dedicating more attention to each individual client. If you derive satisfaction from knowing and understanding your clients, transitioning to a boutique can certainly offer a more client-centric experience.

Engaging entrepreneurs

Because of their smaller scale, boutique firms tend to provide a more entrepreneurial environment in which solicitors can contribute to the firm's growth and financial performance. The goal of becoming a partner is often more attainable for ambitious associates in boutiques. If you have a naturally strong entrepreneurial spirit with partnership ambitions and want to be involved in strategic decision-making, a boutique setting may be more conducive.

Boutique to Big Law

Already in a boutique and thinking about the bright lights of a big firm brand name?

Then this is what to expect.

Craving complexity

If you find yourself hungering for exposure to a wider range of cases, blue-chip clients, and often complex banking, corporate or finance matters, transitioning to a big-law firm may offer the broader scope of practice you crave. One big law firm describes what you can derive from spending time there: ‘You will have the technical skills, industry-recognised qualifications and the experience to become an exceptional lawyer.’

Going global

Big-law firms often have a global presence and handle complex, cross-border transactions which play a pivotal role in UK business and the world economy, as well as high-value disputes. Some offer six-months in one of their overseas offices as part of the training contract, or a post-qualification placement. If you aspire to work on international matters and take on cases with a broader multi-jurisdictional scope, moving to a big-law firm might be for you.

Securing support

Extensive resources are integral to big law firms. They include: world-class research and information facilities, mentorship programmes, first-rate infrastructure and cutting-edge technology in prestige office locations. Some even have facilities such as a gym, bar, hairdressers, dentist and dry cleaners. If you feel the need for these resources to enhance your professional growth, or services to suit your lifestyle, transitioning to a big-law setting might be just the ticket.

Training targets

Intense competition exists for training contracts offered by big law firms: there are around 50 applications for every place at the top 100 firms by size. A common draw for would-be trainees is the quality of training they receive, alongside those much-publicised post-qualification salary packages. For qualified solicitors, comprehensive training continues to feature. If you value structured, specialised training opportunities to develop your skillset, moving to a larger firm may align with your professional development goals.

Pursuing prestige

Big-ticket transactions and high-profile disputes often serve as the daily bread and butter of big law firm work, providing greater responsibility for lawyers who work on them. If you aspire to be involved in significant legal matters and demanding work on a big scale, transitioning to a bigger law firm may open doors to more prestigious, complex cases. High base salaries and enticing bonus structures are par for the course - alongside those long office hours and potential burnout.

The decision to make a lateral move is based on multiple considerations. It is entirely personal. Only you know what really matters in that assorted mix of pay, career progression, client contact, job satisfaction, working hard and playing hard, partnership prospects, and simply being happy in what you do and where you’re going.

Ultimately, the choice is yours.

James Lavan is an executive director at Buchanan Law

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