in Careers Advice, Legal Profession

Small Law Firms and Big Law Firms – the differences

SmallLaw v BigLaw – the differences

BigLaw v SmallLaw - the practical differencesThe US has a slightly different definition of the two types of law firm operating in each jurisdiction. In the UK we call them High Street law and Commercial law firms, although the two overlap a bit. In the USA they term the two types of firm SmallLaw and BigLaw. This makes a lot of sense. The larger law firms in the UK are predominantly based in the city of London and employ literally armies upon armies of lawyers & support staff and work with huge state institutions and corporations. Billing levels for paralegals start at a rate higher than a lot of partners in high street firms. High street firms operate on tight budgets and commonly have less than 20 employees.

The difference in the approach can be demonstrated with these two examples:

The New Client
A solicitor at a law firm gets a call from a new client asking to retain him. The solicitor is over the moon. “They want to hire me,” he’s thinking. “How flattering! And the partners will be really pleased that I’ve managed to attract new business at my tender age.”

At a small firm, the partners are indeed impressed: “That’s great! Congratulations! We’re delighted to see that you have an eye for generating business..”

At a large firm, the partners may react quite differently: “What’s the matter worth? Maybe ten grand in fees? It’s not worth running a conflict check for ten grand. Call the client back and refer her to the little firm down the block.” Or, if the matter is more substantial: “That sounds like an interesting matter, but it’s a one-off situation. We don’t do any other work for that company, so this isn’t an important institutional relationship for us. And the potential new client is a big company, which implies that it will create a lot of conflicts. We can’t do one-off litigation for a big company, because that will prevent us from suing that company on behalf of our many existing clients (who are worth much more to us). You can’t take the case.”

Conflict Checks
At a small law firm, “conflict check” means a call from a long-time client in a litigation matter against a company called BigCo. The solicitor puts his client on hold, does a quick look at the firm’s client database and says “I’ve checked conflicts. We can handle your case. Feel free to tell me the details.”

In large firms the solicitor will get the call and say “Thanks for calling me about this. I’d be delighted to represent you, but I can’t commit to handling the case until I check conflicts. Please don’t tell me anything more about the case. I’ll run a conflict check and get back to you as soon as possible.” The solicitor asks a conflict-checker to do the necessary search of the conflicts database. The computer searches for “BigCo” and “Big” and “Co”; and all corporate entities that have those words (or fragments) in their names; and parents, subsidiaries, and affiliates of all those corporate entities. Two hours later, the solicitor receives a 53-page spreadsheet with the names of all current clients, former clients, and potential future clients whose names the computer generated. The list is broken down not just by client name, but also by individual matter, and many matters were handled by different “responsible partners” at the 30 offices around the globe. The solicitor dutifully sends out emails to the partners responsible for every matter that might create a conflict. A couple of those partners are in trial, and a few are on annual leave and one no longer works for the firm. The partner in the Hong Kong office naturally refuses to answer emails, despite many nudges.

Three weeks later, the solicitor returns the call to his client, happily reporting that he can take the case.

(I’ve borrowed these examples from Mark Herrmann, a US lawyer with experience in both types of law firm in the USA (see for the full article).

Jonathan Fagan

Jonathan Fagan LLM FIRP is Managing Director of Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment. He has been recruiting solicitors and legal support staff for law firms and in house legal departments for over 20 years and handles roles from junior fee earners through to partners and law firm sales/purchases. A non-practising solicitor on the Roll since 2000, he is also the author of a number of legal career books, which are available at You can contact Jonathan at