The legal industry is notoriously slow to evolve—yet it’s also ever-changing. And few events in recent years spurred as much change as the pandemic. For many lawyers, the chaos and upheaval of 2020-2021 ignited deep self-reflection. What do I want out of my career? What role does work play in my life? Am I really happy? How do I get to where I want to go?
One move that seems to be gaining traction, at least at the associate level, is leaving BigLaw for a smaller firm. I recently sat down with two mid- to senior-level lawyers who made this transition as well as an HR executive from a boutique law firm. Drawing from their insights, here are some of the key factors that seem to be driving this market movement.
The desire for more meaningful work
The pandemic brought into focus the importance of having fulfilling work. In fact, one of the associates I spoke with told me that 2020 prompted him to reexamine his career and what he wanted to do with his life. Both associates compared BigLaw employment to being a little cog in a large machine, whereas a small firm gave them the chance to make a greater impact—in their career and on case outcomes.
“I will be deposing witnesses in the next couple of weeks,” explained one lawyer. “In BigLaw, I don’t know if I’d get that [chance] until my fifth or sixth year. Even the doc review I do feels different because I know the case. I’m looking substantively. I’m actually part of the team coming up with the strategy.”
The other associate told me he has a “greater sense of professional and personal investment” after moving to a boutique firm.
These sentiments were echoed by the HR executive I talked to. “They come because they care about the work and want to get their hands dirty,” she said of lawyers who make the switch. “Our clients are what matter to us, so we get to do really great work for them.”
A collegial, team-focused culture
Workplace culture seems to be another factor in why lawyers are migrating to smaller firms. Even if it’s not the catalyst, a tight-knit and supportive environment is a welcomed surprise once they make it over to the other side.
One associate told me that at the large firm where he worked, returning to the office post-COVID did little to improve office camaraderie. He found a much different environment after moving to a boutique firm. “It’s really because it’s so small. People drop by your office and teach you how to do things,” he explained. “The first day, within the first hour, a partner sat down with me over coffee and chatted for an hour. The CFO dropped by one day. It’s a lot more organic.”
Both associates expressed having a better work-life balance after transitioning out of BigLaw. “It may not feel like it day to day, but cumulatively and yearly, it’s noticeable,” one of them said. “I’ll probably take a lot of time off at some point this year.”
The other associate had a similar take: “Certainly—the expectation of availability was very different in a good way. The expectation isn’t that I’ll respond at 9pm. It can usually wait until the morning. That goes for both clients and for partners and colleagues.”
Another thing that stood out to me during these conversations was the emphasis on mentorship. “You get a lot more substantive experience and training [in a boutique],” one associate described. “In BigLaw, it can take a while, largely due to the hierarchy. As a young attorney, I wanted mentorship and to be closer to the cases I’m working on.”
The other lawyer I spoke with said that people have been very generous with their time: “It’s almost like one-on-one tutoring.”
Having a voice that’s heard
Out of all the “whys” behind moving to a boutique firm, what struck me most was how these associates felt they were finally able to exert their influence in a smaller setting. It makes sense when you consider the size of boutique practices versus the anonymity of working in a BigLaw firm with hundreds of lawyers. As one of the lawyers explained: “My one voice in a pool of 45 lawyers means more than in a pool of 500 associates.”
The other associate shared his delight at the opportunity to be “at the table” for every important client call (“I feel like a lawyer here!”).
Barriers to moving to a boutique firm
Boutique law firms tend to embrace BigLaw candidates. When I asked the HR executive why, she highlighted their rigorous training and preparation—particularly their strong legal writing skills, which she deemed “much better than people coming out of some other roles.”
The challenge, she said, is money. “A lot of BigLaw associates are used to making a lot. If money is the main driver, people don’t come here. We sometimes have a hard time attracting more senior attorneys with families to provide for. They’re used to a certain financial situation.”
She’s not wrong. While I see lawyers at every level going to smaller firms, it’s much harder to walk away from senior-level BigLaw compensation. Even mid-level associates may hesitate. They have good salaries and the carrot of potential partnership still dangling in front of them.
One of the lawyers I interviewed admitted his compensation took a drastic hit when he departed BigLaw. “When I left, I took a $30,000 pay cut. It’s a much bigger difference, especially for someone that hasn’t been on the other side of the paradigm and has gotten used to a certain level of consumption.” He said it gets harder to leave the longer you’ve been at a big firm. “There’s more of a pressure as a fifth- to seventh-year associate to make the ‘right choice’. The moves become more limited. I’m basically describing golden handcuffs.”
What associates should consider before pursuing a role at a smaller firm
If you’re eyeing a new chapter in the boutique realm, it’s essential to have a purpose in mind. Know what your new platform means to your career—not just while you’re there, but also after you leave. Know the type of work you want and the kind of culture you thrive in.
Also, understand that you may work just as hard, if not harder, in a boutique setting. Often, the difference is how much you enjoy the job. Two thousand hours can feel like twice as much if you work with people you dislike and you’re doing piecemeal work with no connection. But if you’re engaged, you like your team, and you have a sense of ownership, those hours don’t hit the same.
As always, a career change is a personal decision
The choice to move from BigLaw to a smaller firm, while more common than in years past, remains a very personal one. It spans the generations, making more sense for some lawyers than others depending on a variety of factors. I do think this path will continue to be explored by those seeking better balance in their lives and more purposeful, engaging work.
Do the lawyers I spoke with ever yearn for their BigLaw days? They told me they miss things like round-the-clock technical support, having a platform for pro bono work, and yes, sometimes the bigger salary. But overall, both professionals I interviewed appeared confident in their decision. “The whole industry is in for some level of transformation, and I feel more comfortable at a place where I’m more valued as member of the community,” explained one lawyer.
The other associate was blunter about his career move: “No regrets,” he said with zero hesitation. “This was the right path for me.”