Why Use a Boutique Law Firm
By Jacqueline M. Valdespino
Posted: 29th October 2013 08:42When you are not feeling well, you go to the doctor, your general practitioner. If the doctor says you need a heart bypass, you go to a cardiologist; if you need a hip replacement, you go to an orthopedic surgeon; if you have a kidney stone, you go to a urologist. In medicine, you go to the specialist you need.
The same is true in the law: go to a specialist, that is, the boutique law firm. A boutique law firm is a collection of attorneys, typically organisedin a limited liability partnership or professional corporation, specialisingin a niche area of law practice. While a general practice law firm includes a variety of unrelated practice areas within a single firm, offering multiple services to the client, a boutique firm specialisesin one or a select few practice areas. (There may be some confusion as some legal publications may refer to any small- or mid-sized firm as a boutique. Boutique should apply to those firms that focus on particular areas, regardless of size.)
Historically, the elite largest law firms derived safety and security from the knowledge that they could depend on big fees from large institutional clients needing multiple services in multiple areas of law. The large institutional clients, such as banks and insurance companies, felt confident sending their legal work to a giant, white-shoe firm, with a complete support staff and the supposed cream of the law school-graduating crop. This model traditionally encouraged extremely large firms in the pyramid structure, i.e., many associates, a few junior partners, still fewer senior partners, with a large degree of complacency and equally large fees. While large full-service law firms offer partners with impressive credentials and experience, and the work would get done with an expected degree of expertise, on the downside, large firms generally do not make the most senior partners available on a regular basis even to their biggest clients, the billable hour is exorbitant, and overstaffing by junior attorneys exacerbates these firms’ high billing rates.
On the other hand, boutique law firms feature highly qualified and experienced senior attorneys in a particularisedniche, who focus on client service and contact, with a lower overhead reflected in their billing rates. The boutique law firm is not as “pyramid focused” as traditional law firms, such that the partner/associate ratio may be 1:1 or even 2:1, a reverse pyramid.
Because of the cost-savings that boutique law firms offer, as well as the more personal touch, a recent study by the Harvard Business Review suggests that even the big institutional clients are starting to favourthe boutique firm that specialises in specific areas of law and offers more client hand-holding.
In family law, the boutique law firm is going to offer the greatest client satisfaction in terms of (1) billable rate, (2) personal service, and, most importantly, (3) expertise. First, because the family law boutique firm is not engaging in transactional law, the law firm size will tend to be much smaller.(1) Smaller firm usually means smaller overhead, less total support staff, and lower billable rate. (According to the ABA Journal, December 2012, the highest billable rate in 2012 was $1,285 for a partner at the Dallas office of Locke Lord. An informal survey of family law attorneys in the AAML found the highest rate to be $750 for an attorney in Boston. The median rate for family law attorneys is $250.)
Second, family law attorneys recognisethat divorce, child custody, and the attendant issues faced by clients are highly emotional, probably more so than any other area of law. Attorneys who specialisein family law and practice in a boutique family law firm are more willing to give personal service and engage in hand-holding that the clients need, and are more attuned to the need to refer the client to counsellingif need be. Also, because there are not multiple lawyers, paralegals and support staff working on the case, the client feels that there is one person or a small team that knows everything about the case and is helping to navigate through the storm.
Finally, boutique family law attorneys are specialists in the sophisticated issues in all areas of family law, including divorce (fault and no-fault), child custody and visitation, geographic relocation with the children, spousal and child support, negotiation of pre-nuptial, post-nuptial and separation agreements, grandparent visitation, domestic violence, international child custody, defenceof neglect and abuse allegations and paternity matters. In particular, when dealing with relocation cases, the general practice lawyer simply does not have the expertise in these areas to adequately meet the client’s needs.
Indeed, too many times, a general practice lawyer or a trusts and estates lawyer will undertake a family law matter, only to draft a poorly worded agreement, not understand the intricacies of modern asset classification, valuation, and distribution, or not be familiar with emerging areas of family law (such as same-sex marriage and divorce, or interstate/international enforcement or orders, or relocation), and ultimately have to hand the matter off to the family law attorney, who has to undo the mistakes already made.
Because of the intricacies of modern family law, family law is recognisedas a specialty in over a dozen states, including Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon, North Carolina, and Texas. This designation sets the “specialists” apart as being an attorney with the highest public commitment to excellence in their area of law.
The same can be said of the boutique family law firm. The family and matrimonial law boutique firm sets itself apart by bringing to the table a commitment to excellence not found in the general practice firm. That commitment to excellence translates to results a client can count on.
Jacqueline M. Valdespino is the Founding Partner of Valdespino & Associates, PA, a boutique Family and Matrimonial Law Firm in Miami, Florida. Ms. Valdespino is also a member of the International Network of Boutique Law Firms: www.INBLF.com
(1) Schiller, DuCanto & Fleck, P.C., in Chicago, Illinois, is the largest family law boutique firm, with 45 attorneys. Koons Fuller, headquartered in Dallas, is the Southwest’s lawyers and Jones Day, with 2,407 lawyers.