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One of the major developments in the legal profession over the past couple of decades has been the rise of the so-called “boutique” firm. Entrepreneurial attorneys who seek to continue their sophisticated commercial practice in a more intimate professional setting often form these firms, which are significantly smaller than their large commercial counterparts. Small firms hold certain advantages over big firms. For example, while larger firms with several dozen attorneys are particularly suited to handle large complex matters, they sometimes lose the not-so-big matters in the bureaucracy permeating most big firms. Boutique firms generally are more flexible and personally attentive. Moreover, smaller firms usually can charge less. Clients and attorneys alike, however, tend to overlook one vital advantage. Attorneys who leave big firms to start boutiques learn more about running a business than they ever anticipated. They can use this knowledge to serve their clients better, making the small-firm lawyer more competitive. Most attorneys who make the jump from the big-firm ranks will tell you that practicing law is the easy part of starting a boutique firm; it’s the administrative and business side of running a firm that is unfamiliar and challenging. Big firms have layers of support people who allow an attorney to concentrate on clients and the practice. By contrast, when you start your own firm, you suddenly have to deal with such essentials as hiring, payroll, billing, bookkeeping and insurance. Most attorneys initially underestimate the time and effort these tasks require. For the lawyer nurtured in the big-firm cocoon, these new challenges can become quite overwhelming. Nonetheless, the entrepreneurial lawyer realizes that these tasks are as important to the success of the fledgling firm as the lawyer’s legal talent and client base. THE CLIENT’S WORLD The administrative learning curve offers a significant benefit for clients: hands-on business experience. One of the ironies of large firms is that most big-firm lawyers who advise business people on legal matters have no practical business experience. This lack of experience can handicap their ability to communicate empathetically with clients and to provide effective legal advice. Boutique lawyers, on the other hand, are far less isolated from the day-to-day concerns of a business. They face them in their own practices. They know that it’s a mistake to assume that their clients have nothing better to do than focus on legal matters. They also know that the legal piece of the pie is just one of many headaches a business faces and that the relative importance of that piece will fluctuate, sometimes daily. The small-firm lawyer recognizes that if he ignores the business realities facing most clients, he risks appearing obtuse or, even worse, arrogant. Smart lawyers quickly realize that learning the law and applying it to the real world are two distinct things. To represent a business effectively, you must somehow understand all facets of that business, including understanding your clients’ customers, products, labor situation and overhead demands. Legal decisions made by businesses are almost always intertwined with business issues. If you don’t understand those issues, you can’t make good legal decisions. For the client, the answer to such questions as “should we settle or go to trial?” centers on financial and other core goals of the business itself. It can’t be answered merely by having the lawyer quantify the chances of a favorable judgment. The lawyer who has awakened in the middle of the night wrestling with payroll or employee issues has a better understanding of how clients use their legal advice to make these decisions. Different businesses, of course, have different core values and different headaches, but the lawyer’s job is to figure out what those are and incorporate them into the legal decision-making process. When you run your own firm, doing so comes much more naturally. Attorney Jonathan E. Smaby is the managing director of Dallas-based Roberts & Smaby. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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