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Lawyers assessing the merits of a boutique have more than usual to think about in today’s unpredictable and sluggish economy. While relevant factors such as partnership structure, pay scale and management style are still important, these considerations mean little if a downturn in the economy results in layoffs or the closing of the boutique. Ask yourself what a boutique is and what services it provides, suggests Dave, a partner-level employment lawyer who recently left a boutique labor and employment firm. In urging attorneys to begin with a big-picture approach, he notes that certain practices fare better in boom times, while some practices, like labor and employment, “are relatively steady no matter the current state of the economy.” Labor and employment practices, he says, are “impacted more by what Congress does than what the economy is like.” These sentiments are echoed by Paul, a partner-level immigration attorney at a midsize employment and immigration boutique. “While labor and employment may have fewer ups and downs and is somewhat recession-proof,” other specialties, like immigration, have “experienced a significant slowdown.” Paul views his firm’s labor and employment practice as the backbone of that boutique’s economic structure, which “evens out the ups and downs” as the immigration practice slows down. Camille, a senior bankruptcy associate at a small Southern bankruptcy boutique, suggests that attorneys look for boutiques with complementary, but related, practices. “When tied with collections or creditor’s rights work, the bankruptcy boutique had fairly consistent work,” she explains. “In a bad economy, bankruptcy work increases; in a good economy, it is often easier to collect judgments because people may have rehabilitated themselves.” An attorney should explore whether other practices, however small, exist within the boutique itself and what economic forces drive these practices. Also, the attorney should consider whether he would adapt to a related practice, if required. Sometimes it is difficult to garner information about the financial solidity of the boutique because the willingness of the partners to share financial information will vary by management style, says Mark, a senior associate at a small corporate boutique. He says he is “in the dark” when it comes to firm finances. Likewise, although Camille had an idea of what revenues she generated for the firm, she was “left to guess at what the rest of the firm was doing.” An attorney, through interviews with associates and partners, should get a feel for the partners’ management style and willingness to share financial information before making the move to a boutique. There are also intangible factors — not necessarily economy-related — for an attorney to weigh. For example, some attorneys believe that the quality of life is better at a boutique firm, citing such factors as high levels of respect and collegiality among the lawyers and shared attorney backgrounds in particular areas of study. Paul, the immigration lawyer, says that boutique lawyers “often enjoy cordial relationships with members of the local bar because there’s often less competition among the boutique firms and other local firms for the same client work.” Jennifer, an intellectual property lawyer with a chemistry background, enjoys high job satisfaction in part because many of her firm’s lawyers are also scientists. Other seemingly positive factors — such as a less bureaucratic structure and a manageable firm size — may also have a downside. “Partnership has no defined track. When they feel you’re ready, you’re ready,” says Mark, the senior corporate associate. Camille adds that her firm’s commitment to small size meant that there “were fewer partnership opportunities and no real structure for a partnership track.” However, there is also the potential for early partnership consideration, says Jennifer, who has been told she will likely be considered for partnership early. Attorneys should also weigh the manner in which a less bureaucratic structure interjects more subjectivity into other issues, like alternative work arrangements and compensation. Christen Civiletto Carey is of counsel to Kritzer & Levick in Atlanta and the author of a career guide for law students and young lawyers, “Full Disclosure: The New Lawyer’s Must-Read Career Guide.” Her e-mail address is [email protected]

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