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Little Big Firm follow up: Interview with Matthew Butterick

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled Little Big Firm, which argued that smaller firms and solo lawyers can do many things that only big law firms used to be able to do. Strategic use of technology is a key part of the equation. Of course, there are many technology options available and it's often hard for the busy lawyer to figure out which ones are worth exploring. I'd like to help lawyers find the most useful options in several key areas. The goal should always involve finding ways to do a better job for one's clients.

Matthew Butterick's book Typography for Lawyers is a good example of an information resource that, I believe, can help most lawyers figure out how to prepare more professional looking documents. After my post, Matthew contacted me and gave me some of his thoughts on other things that solo and small firm lawyers can use to help their law practice. It occurred to me then that this topic (e.g. how small firms can compete effectively with larger firms) is ripe for additional exploration. 

The best way to explore this is with folks who have helpful ideas about how solo and small lawyers can be more effective. Since Matthew offered some behind the scenes tips, I thought I'd start by interviewing him by email and then publish it here (if this goes well I'll look for more interview candidates).

So who is Matthew Butterick? 

Matthew practices law as a solo lawyer in California. He's best known for having published Typography for Lawyers, a book that has gotten quite a bit of attention among lawyers (he also has a website). Matthew believes that lawyers would benefit by learning some key typography principles (he studied graphic design at Harvard before he went to law school). Lawyers who are aware of how professional documents such as books and magazines are designed, can make use of the key principles to create documents that look more professional and are easier to read. Matthew's book distills those key principles and shows how they can be applied in the context of law practice. So, with that brief introduction I'll start the interview, which will play out over the next few days on this website.

Question No. 1

You're currently a solo lawyer. What, if any, are your experiences with large firm culture?

I didn’t go to law school wanting to be a big-firm lawyer — I wanted to work solo or in a small firm. So I never worked in a big firm. My wife did her 2L summer at a big firm. In my work as a lawyer, I’ve been opposite some big-firm lawyers. As part of other business dealings, I’ve also been a client of some big-firm lawyers.

I know it’s traditional to draw a divide between the big-firm and small-firm worlds. I even had a law-school professor who taught a civil-litigation class and described them as the two “hemispheres” of legal practice. And on obvious levels, some of those contrasts are true. For clients with big, multinational problems, the solution is a big, multinational law firm. A solo attorney in a home office just isn’t going to cut it.

But as someone coming into a legal industry in the midst of a significant retrenchment, I’ve also noticed some similarities. For instance, partners in large firms are expected to bring in their own clients, and when they stop being able to do that, they face consequences. (Google “de-equitization.”) It seems to me that large firms increasingly operate as a network of solo attorneys — the partners — who find it convenient to share infrastructure and refer work to each other. Maybe there was an era where big firms were organized more communally, and maybe some firms that persist in that approach, but it seems to be on the wane.

Also, as a new attorney, I’ve had plenty of friends from UCLA who have had problems finding a job, or have gotten laid off from big firms, or have had other career disruptions. The traditional wisdom that big firms provide stable employment has gone out the window. So folks who thought they would be fourth-year associates by now have had to hustle and make other opportunities — in other words, behave like solo attorneys.

 

 


P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.
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