Law firm

Law firm

A law firm is a business entity formed by one or more lawyers to engage in the practice of law. The primary service provided by a law firm is to advise clients (individuals or corporations) about their legal rights and responsibilities, and to represent their clients in civil or criminal cases, business transactions and other matters in which legal assistance is sought.Smaller firms tend to focus on particular specialties of the law (e.g. patent law, labor law, tax law, criminal defense, personal injury); larger firms may be composed of several specialized practice groups, allowing the firm to diversify their client base and market, and to offer a variety of services to their clients. [Wayne L. Anderson and Marilyn J. Headrick, "The Legal Profession: Is it for you?" (Cincinnati: Thomson Executive Press, 1996), 111.]

Law firms are organized in a variety of ways, depending on the jurisdiction in which the firm practices. Common arrangements include:
*Sole proprietorship, in which the attorney "is" the law firm and is responsible for all profit, loss and liability;
*General partnership, in which all of the attorneys in the firm equally share ownership and liability;
*Professional corporations, which issue stock to the attorneys in a fashion similar to that of a business corporation;
*Limited liability company, in which the attorney-owners are called "members" but are not directly liable to third party creditors of the law firm;
*Professional association, which operates similarly to a professional corporation or a limited liability company;
*Limited liability partnership (LLP), in which the attorney-owners are partners with one another, but no partner is liable to any creditor of the law firm nor is any partner liable for any negligence on the part of any other partner. The LLP is taxed as a partnership while enjoying the liability protection of a corporation.

In many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, there is a rule that only lawyers may have an ownership interest in, or be managers of, a law firm. Thus, law firms cannot quickly raise capital through initial public offerings on the stock market, like most corporations. In the United States this rule is promulgated by the American Bar Association and adhered to in almost all U.S. jurisdictions.

The rule was created in order to prevent conflicts of interest. In the adversarial system of justice, a lawyer has a duty to be a zealous and loyal advocate on behalf of the client. Also, as an officer of the court, a lawyer has a duty to be honest and to not file frivolous cases. A lawyer working as a shareholder-employee of a publicly traded law firm would be strongly tempted to evaluate decisions in terms of their effect on the stock price and the shareholders, which would directly conflict with the lawyer's duties to the client and to the courts.

In the United Kingdom, lawyers are divided between barristers, who plead in the higher courts and give expert opinions on points of law, and solicitors who act directly for clients. Even though barristers are traditionally seen as the senior branch of the legal profession, and the most distinguished British lawyers are generally barristers, most barristers are self-employed sole practitioners (although they share facilities in sets of rooms known as "chambers", usually at one of the four Inns of Court). All the main UK law firms are firms of solicitors.

Large law firms usually have separate litigation and transactional departments. The transactional department advises clients and handles transactional legal work, such as drafting contracts, handling necessary legal applications and filings, and evaluating and ensuring compliance with relevant law; while the litigation department represents clients in court and handle necessary matters (such as discovery and motions filed with the court) throughout the process of litigation.

tructure and promotion

Law firms are typically organized around partners, who are joint owners and business directors of the legal operation; associates, who are employees of the firm with the prospect of becoming partners; and a variety of staff employees, providing paralegal, clerical, and other support services. An associate may have to wait as long as 9 years before the decision is made as to whether the associate "makes partner". Many law firms have an "up-or-out policy" (pioneered around 1900 by partner Paul Cravath of Cravath, Swaine & Moore [Robert L. Nelson, "Partners With Power: The Social Transformation of the Large Law Firm" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 71-72.] ): associates who do not make partner are required to resign, either to join another firm, go it alone as a solo practitioner, go to work in-house in a corporate legal department, or change professions (burnout rates are very high in law [Michael H. Trotter, "Profit and the Practice of Law: What's Happened to the Legal Profession" (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 83.] ).

Making partner is very prestigious, especially at a large or midsize firm. Such firms take out advertisements in legal newspapers to announce who has made partner. Traditionally, partners shared directly in the profits of the firm, after paying salaried employees, the landlord, and the usual costs of furniture, office supplies, and books for the law library (or a database subscription). Partners in a limited liability partnership can largely operate autonomously with regards to cultivating new business and servicing existing clients within their book of business. However, many large law firms have moved to a two-tiered partnership model, with equity and non-equity partners. Equity partners are considered to have ownership stakes in the firm, and share in the profits (and losses) of the firm. Non-equity partners are generally paid a fixed salary (albeit much higher than associates), and they are often granted certain limited voting rights with respect to firm operations. It is rare for a partner to be forced out by fellow partners, although that can happen if the partner commits a crime or malpractice, experiences disruptive mental illness, or is not contributing to the firm's overall profitability. However, some large firms have written into their partnership agreement a forced retirement age for partners. This age can be anywhere from age 65 on up. In contrast, most corporate executives are at much higher risk of being fired, even when the underlying cause is not directly their fault, such as a drop in the company's stock price.

In the United States and Canada, many large and midsize firms have attorneys with the job title of "counsel", "special counsel" or "of counsel." As the Supreme Court of California has noted, the title has acquired several related but distinct definitions which do not easily fit into the traditional partner-associate structure. [See "People ex rel. Dept. of Corporations v. SpeeDee Oil Change Systems, Inc." [ 20 Cal. 4th 1135] , 1152-1153 (1999).] These attorneys are employees of the firm like associates, although some firms have an independent contractor relationship with their of counsel. But unlike associates, and more like partners, they generally have their own clients, manage their own cases, and supervise associates. These relationships are structured to allow more senior attorneys share in the resources and "brand name" of the firm without being a part of management or profit sharing decisions. The title is often seen among former associates who do not make partner, or who are laterally recruited to other firms, or who work as in-house counsel and then return to the big firm environment. At some firms, the title "of counsel" is given to retired partners who maintain ties to the firm. Sometimes an "of counsel" is a senior or experienced attorney, such as a foreign legal consultant with experience in international law and practice, and his own clients. They are hired as independent contractors by large firms as a special arrangement, that may lead upon profitable results to partnership. In these situation an "of counsel" could be considered as a transitional status in the firm.

Mergers, acquisitions, division and reorganizations occur between law firms as in other businesses. The specific books of business and specialization of attorneys as well as the professional ethical strictures surrounding conflict of interest can lead to firms splitting up to pursue different clients or practices, or merging or recruiting experienced attorneys to acquire new clients or practice areas. Results often vary between firms experiencing such transitions. Firms that gain new practice areas or departments through recruiting or mergers that are more complex and demanding (and typically more profitable) may see the focus, organization and resources of the firm shift dramatically towards those new departments. Conversely, firms may be merged among experienced attorneys as partners for purposes of shared financing and resources, while the different departments and practice areas within the new firm retain a significant degree of autonomy.


Law firms range widely in size. The smallest law firms are sole practitioners (lawyers practicing alone), who form the vast majority of lawyers in nearly all countries. [Geoffrey C. Hazard, Jr. & Angelo Dondi, "Legal Ethics: A Comparative Study" (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 39.]

The United States pioneered the concept of the large law firm in the sense of a business entity consisting of more than one lawyer. The first law firms with two or more lawyers appeared in the U.S. just prior to the American Civil War (1861-1865). [Hazard, 37-39.] The idea gradually spread across the Atlantic to England, although "English solicitors remained a corps of solo practitioners or very small partnerships until after World War II." [Hazard, 39.] Today, the United States (and the United Kingdom) have many small firms (2 to 50 lawyers) and midsize firms (50 to 200 lawyers). [Trotter, 46.]

Lawyers in small cities and towns may still have old-fashioned general practices, but most urban lawyers tend to be highly specialized due to the overwhelming complexity of the law today. [Nelson, 172, and Trotter, 50.] Thus, some small firms in the cities specialize in practicing only one kind of law (like employment, antitrust, intellectual property, or telecommunications) and are called "boutique" firms. [Lawrence M. Friedman, "American Law in the 20th Century" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 462.]

However, the largest law firms have more than FORMATNUM:1000 lawyers. These firms, often colloquially called "megafirms" or "biglaw", generally have offices on several continents, bill up to $750 per hour or higher, and have a high ratio of support staff per attorney. [Trotter, 56.] [Richard L. Abel, "American Lawyers" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 190-199.] They can, and in some cases do, litigate every issue, burying their opponents in a blizzard of paper in the process; the result has been a kind of legal "arms race" where every large corporation tries to retain the services of the biggest law firm they can afford. [Trotter, 114.] Because of the localized and regional nature of firms, the relative size of a firm varies. [Anderson, 113.] Thus in New York, several hundred attorneys would be required for a "large firm", whereas in Las Vegas, perhaps only 50 attorneys would be needed to be a "large firm".

The largest firms like to call themselves "full-service" firms because they have departments specializing in every type of legal work that pays well, which in the U.S. usually means mergers and acquisitions transactions, [Friedman, 462.] banking, and certain types of high-stakes corporate litigation. These firms rarely do plaintiffs' personal injury work. However the largest law firms are not very large compared to other major businesses (or even other professional services firms). In 2008, the largest law firm in the world was the British firm Clifford Chance, which had revenue of over US$2 billion. This can be compared with $404 billion for the world's largest firm by turnover Exxon Mobil and $25 billion for the largest professional services firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

The largest law firms in the world are based primarily in the United Kingdom and the United States. The American system of licensing attorneys on a state-by-state basis, the tradition of having a headquarters in a single U.S. state and a close focus on profits per partner (as opposed to sheer scale) has to date limited the size of most American law firms. Thus, whilst the most profitable law firms in the world remain in New York, four of the six largest firms in the world are based in London in the United Kingdom [] . But the huge size of the United States results in a larger number of large firms overall — a 2003 survey found that the United States alone had 901 law firms with more than 50 lawyers, while there were only 58 such firms in Canada, 44 in Great Britain, 14 in France, and 9 in Germany. [Eliane Botelho Junqueira, "Brazil: The Road of Conflict Bound for Total Justice," in "Legal Culture in the Age of Globalization: Latin America and Latin Europe", eds. Lawrence M. Friedman and Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo, 64-107 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 92.] There is an increasing tendency towards globalisation of law firms.


United States

Salaries typically depend on firm size (small-firm salaries vary widely and are not often publicly available). In 2006, median salaries of new graduates ranged from US$50,000 per year in small firms (2 to 10 attorneys) to US$135,000 per year in very large firms (more than 501 attorneys) ["What Do New Lawyers Earn? A 15-Year Retrospective as Reported by Law School Graduates". The distribution of these salaries is highly bimodal, with the majority of new lawyers earning at either the high end or the low end of the scale. The median salary is US$62,000 [] . The Association for Legal Career Professionals,] .

According to [] , many large firms in major markets such as New York City, [ [] ] California, [ [] ] Washington DC, [ [] ] Boston [ [] ] and Chicago [ [] ] compensate new associates using the following pay scale:

Other markets such as Texas [ [] ] start at US$160,000, but the annual increases are much smaller than the above scale.

With a few exceptions, markets such as Atlanta, [ [] ] Philadelphia, [ [] ] New Jersey, [ [] ] Florida, [ [] ] Denver, [ [] ] and Seattle [ [] ] generally start at US$35,000-US$50,000 for small law firms to US$130,000 or US$145,000 for large law firms.

With a few exceptions, most other U.S. markets start within US$20,000 of US$100,000.

NYC bonuses (the highest in the U.S.) in 2007 were as follows: [ [] ]

Larger markets outside NYC typically match the base bonus without the special bonus. Smaller markets and/or smaller firms pay $5K to $20K bonuses, if any at all. [ [ Law Firms and Salaries -] ]


Most law firms are located in office buildings of various sizes, ranging from modest one-story buildings (e.g. SLC [ SLC ] , ] ) to some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world (though only in 2004, Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP was the first firm to put its name on a skyscraper). Some solo practitioners practice out of their homes or in offices built as special additions to their homes.

Because their "work product" is often intangible, or at least conceptually difficult for clients to grasp, some firms are notorious for using jaw-dropping interior design (huge amount of floor space and fantastic views) as a "shock and awe" tactic to impress prospective clients and intimidate opposing counsel. Other firms will find more modest office space, depending on the nature of the practice.

In late 2001, it was widely publicized that one personal injury plaintiffs' firm in the state of New York has been experimenting with bus-sized "mobile law offices." [Alan Feuer, "Next Stop for a Legal Team? A Personal Injury Case in Queens," "New York Times", 26 December 2001, D1.] The firm insists that it does not "chase ambulances". It claims that a law office on wheels is more convenient for personal injury plaintiffs, who are often recovering from severe injuries and thus find it difficult to travel far from their homes for an intake interview.


As legal practice is adversarial, law firm rankings are widely relied on by prospective associates, lateral hires and legal . Substantive rankings typically cover practice areas such as The American Lawyer's Corporate Scorecard [ The Corporate Scorecard] and Top IP Firms. Work place rankings are directed toward lawyers or law students, and cover such topics as quality of life, hours, family friendliness and salaries [ Law Firm Rankings] . Finally, statistical rankings generally cover profit-related data such as profits per partner and revenue per lawyer [ AmLaw 100] .

In an October 2007 press conference reported in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, the law student group Building a Better Legal Profession released its first annual ranking of top law firms by average billable hours, pro bono participation, and demographic diversity. [Amir Efrati, You Say You Want a Big-Law Revolution, Take II, "Wall Street Journal", October 10, 2007. ] [ Adam Liptak, In Students’ Eyes, Look-Alike Lawyers Don’t Make the Grade, "New York Times", October 29, 2007, ] Most notably, the report ranked the percentages of women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and gays & lesbians at America's top law firms. The group has sent the information to top law schools around the country, encouraging students to take this demographic data into account when choosing where to work after graduation. [ Henry Weinstein, Big L.A. law firms score low on diversity survey: The numbers of female, black, Latino, Asian and gay partners and associates lag significantly behind their representation in the city's population, according to a study, "Los Angeles Times", October 11, 2007,,1,661263.story?coll=la-headlines-california ] As more students choose where to work based on the firms' diversity rankings, firms face an increasing market pressure in order to attract top recruits. [ Thomas Adcock and Zusha Elinson, Student Group Grades Firms On Diversity, Pro Bono Work, "New York Law Journal," October 19, 2007, ]

In popular culture



Television shows

A number of television shows have revolved around relationships occurring in fictional law firms, highlighting both public fascination with and misperception of the lives of lawyers in high-powered settings.


ee also

*White shoe firm
*Magic Circle
*Big Six law firms
*List of 100 largest law firms globally
*Book of business (law)

External links

[ Law Firms Directory ]

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