Big Firm vs. Small Firm: What Are The Differences?

The comparison of legal services provided by a big law firm vs. a small law firm can take into account a variety of factors. Our discussion here will be on cost, knowledge/experience, and availability. Ranking high on the list is cost. Big law firms have large overhead costs. This can include a large amount of leased office space, staff, furniture, and equipment. These costs require substantial profits to support. That is why large law firms normally have large hourly rates. These hourly rates can range from $250.00 per hour and up. The large firms normally have a minimum number of billable hours for their attorneys to meet. This is often a significant number such as 2,000 hours in a year. That means they could meet this requirement if they could bill for every minute in a 40 hour week for 50 out of 52 weeks in a year. This is impossible to do and is why attorneys at large firms work more than 40 hours a week and often work 60 to 80 hours a week. This concept of a required number of billable hours can result in a senior partner meeting with the client and performing some work on the file. He likely will assign the file to a junior partner who will also work on it for his billable hours and there may be one or more paralegals that work on the file who will also bill for their time. With all of these individuals working on the file and all likely to have some minimum number of billable hour requirements, it is easy to see how legal fees can climb and become excessive in a short period of time.

In a small law firm, the overhead is likely much lower than in the larger law firm. The small firm will not have the need for a large amount of leased office space because it is not likely to have a large staff etc. The small firm will likely have a lower hourly rate because its requirement for large profits to pay for large overhead is not there. Small firms normally do not have a minimum number of billable hours that they require. Instead, the small firm is likely to have a work ethic that you 'stay until it's done' attitude which may mean that they are more willing to work late or on weekends or holidays to finish a project because they know things will slow back down once the task is completed. Small firms also do not have the bureaucracy of large firms and thus a decision to offer a discount for a certain amount of time can be made quickly and efficiently. When the firm decision maker is working closely with the client, issues can be addressed in a way that is beneficial to both parties.

The perception is that big or large law firms have the knowledge or experience to handle a particular issue or matter. It is true that large firms may have individuals with specific knowledge or experience but large firms are not the only place where you can find such individual. Often times individuals with real life work experience such as an industry they excel in and have started their own law practice. It is also true that individual from large firms leave the firm for a variety of reasons to start their own practice. It is just as likely that individuals who could have started out with a large firm rejected the billable hour requirements and started their own practice. Therefore, with a little effort and research a small firms can be located that has the experience and knowledge you need for a particular legal matter.

Often times legal matters seem complicated or may require more staff than a small firm has. When this occurs, a person may feel compelled to go to a larger firm. This is unnecessary because of technology and the new economic environment. Technology allows even the smallest firm to locate complex information, experts and data necessary to address any legal matter. It also allows the small firm to network with other colleagues in a particular field or specialty including those who work for larger law firms. The new economic environment has allowed more individuals to start their own business or to "moonlight" their services at very reasonable rates. Small firms will likely have relationships with secretaries, paralegals, medical providers, and experts in fields related to the work of the small firm. These individual can be "called up" for help when necessary and their work limited to the specific need. This can be done quickly and at very reasonable rates. If necessary, small firms can contact other firms and they can "team up" or co-counsel a legal matter together. Such a relationship may be with large firms and because of technology, may be located outside of the community or even outside of the state. When this occurs, the large firm may agree to work within the fee structure established by the small firm or limit its work to a very small portion of the entire legal matter. When this occurs the overall costs to the client are normally lower than if the individual went to a large firm to start with.

Finally, an additional benefit of a small firm may be that the attorney handling your matter is the only attorney you will meet with. This means that the attorney making decisions about your legal matter is the same attorney meeting with you to answer questions and explaining what is going on. This may or may not be true in a large firm. You may meet with a senior partner who will be your contact at the firm but he may not be the person performing all or most of the work on your legal matter. At a large firm you also will be one of many clients because of the large firm's need to maintain a large quantity of work or clients to pay for their large overhead. In a small firm you will see a greater focus on personal service because the person you meet with is likely to be the senior person, the junior person, the office manager etc, all rolled into one. He has a vested interest in making sure the outcome of your legal matter is as good as it can be. His attention is on quality work not necessarily on the quantity of work.

Tim has represented private owners, general contractors, specialty contractors, design professionals, and suppliers involved in construction projects that have varied in size and scope.

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