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Solo vs. big law: Does size really matter?

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//September 22, 2023//

Big Law advertising

A big law billboard greets motorists along I-95 in Brunswick, GA. Staff Photo Steve Schuster

Solo vs. big law: Does size really matter?

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//September 22, 2023//

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Driving down Interstate 95 in Brunswick, Georgia, right before the exit for The Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers it’s pretty hard to miss a large law firm billboard from America’s largest personal injury firm that reads “Size Matters.”

The law firm that sponsors the ad campaign, Morgan and Morgan, has locations across the country, including on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee (although those billboards are not displayed locally). The State Bar of Wisconsin declined to comment if the Georgia billboard would be acceptable by Wisconsin’s rules of professional conduct and referred to Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys SCR Chapter 20, 7.2., which stipulates a Wisconsin lawyer may advertise services through written, recorded or electronic communication, including public media.

As of Tuesday, there were 25,000 (15,000 in state and 10,000) attorneys licensed to practice in the state of Wisconsin. Of those, only 2,460 are solo practitioners — that’s less than 10%, according to the State Bar of Wisconsin.

The variety of firms in the Badger State provides potential clients a choice when deciding whether to retain a big law firm or a solo practitioner. The list of advantages and disadvantages also span far and wide across the Badger State as graduates from Marquette University School of Law and The University of Wisconsin School of Law, as well as 3Ls graduating from law schools throughout the nation, are faced with the decision of in-house counsel, big law, solo practice, government or, perhaps, not practicing at all. The choice of big law vs. smaller firms for both attorneys and potential clients comes with various pros and cons of big law vs. a small to midsize firm, or solo practice.

So how much does size really matter?

Milwaukee attorney Emil Ovbiagele, the founding partner of OVB Law & Consulting S.C. who also serves as Milwaukee Bar Association president, said the answer is, “it depends.”

During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal on Thursday, Ovbiagele said, “I’ve seen great lawyers in large and small firms. I’ve also met really crappy lawyers in all of these environments.”

Ovbiagele also noted how it’s common practice for big law attorneys to move into smaller boutique firms.

“There has definitely been a rise of boutique firms handling complex cases. Those attorneys typically have large-firm experience and done things in larger environments. When they open up a boutique firm, they ideally provide clients more cost-effective representation,” Ovbiagele noted.

However, looking at the forest through the trees, he said, “I think it’s a large pie and every firm of every size has a role to play within that sphere.”

Benefits of solo practice

During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal, Milwaukee sports law attorney and solo practitioner Marty Greenburg said he’s had a solo practice for most of his life and still managed to acquire and retain clients that big law firms in New York and California would envy. Among his clients are players, coaches and stadium development entities.

“I thank God every day that Los Angeles and New York lawyers would want these clients, just because I’ve found a niche,” Greenburg said, noting that some of his clients include Major League Baseball and college athletics.

“I have cases that normally would go to larger law firms, but because of the reputation I’ve established in this field I still get cases,” he added.

Greenburg, who is a retired Marquette Law School professor, still maintains a full-time solo practice in Milwaukee.

Solo practice has many advantages, Greenburg noted.

“For a little guy from Milwaukee, I’ve had my feel of big-time stuff. There are many cases I couldn’t have accepted if I was part of larger law firm and had a billable hour quota,” Greenburg added.

Having a smaller firm also comes with many advantages, he said.

“Part of the fact that I’m a solo practitioner allows me to spend as much time as I want on a client. My clients have received good results,” Greenburg added.

Milwaukee-based Attorney Nick Zales agreed with Greenburg. Zales, who has been a solo practitioner most of his career, said, “The autonomy and flexibility to work on any case I want to and turn down any case I want is great,” Zales said.

Zales noted why very few sole practitioners or even very small firms are not a large presence in personal injury law.

“It is the very significant costs and expenses required to prove many cases, Doctors, experts, etc. If you lose, poof!  Your $10,000, $25,000, $50,000 or much more in costs is gone! You will be recovering nothing. In fact, the other side will be submitting a “Bill of Costs” to the clerk for their expenses allowed by statute 814.04 Wis. Stats. Those can be significant,” Zales said.

Solo firms also have cons, Zales noted.

“The detriment is the flow of money,” he said. “As a solo you have to find your own clients, which requires a lot of networking and advertising. Solos typically spend 30-40% of the time looking for work. I don’t consider that practicing law, but it has to be done,” Zales added.

According to Zales, one of the advantages to working in big law is a steady income.

“If you have a family and pay for your kids, I don’t know how solos do it,” he added.

Kelly Conrardy, director of Legal Talent at one of Wisconsin’s largest law firms, Godfrey & Kahn, said subject matter expertise is also a benefit to working in big law.

In a larger law firm setting, “You really get to be an expert in your area. You are the subject matter expert, whereas a solo practitioner, you tend to dabble in a lot of areas of law,” Conrardy said.

Strength in numbers

“You always have a team here. If I am working on a matter with a client and say it’s my client and they are buying a business, there is probably some labor and employment aspect … maybe that’s not my area, but I am going to call my good friends upstairs on the Labor and Employment team and get the answers. When there is a real estate issue, I’m calling my buddies on the respective team,” Conrardy said.

“It’s invaluable to have all of those resources. You can’t be awesome at everything; nobody can. When you have a bigger firm that has all of those different areas, you are truly doing the best thing you can do for your client,” Conrardy added.

Husch Blackwell attorney Emily Stedman admits she was “always skeptical of big law.”

Nearly a decade later, Stedman said, ” I’ve been with the firm more than seven years. I’m very satisfied and content.”

Among the benefits of big law for both clients and attorneys who work at the firm, “there is always a support team behind you. The machine of a big firm makes your life easier. If you have a question, there are other associates, paralegals and legal assistants,” Stedman said.

“The diversity of people to work with and ask questions is unmatched,” Stedman noted.

“There is also no shortage of mentoring and shadowing, which can be a huge benefit,” Stedman added, noting that a firm like Husch Blackwell can serve more broadly due to more competitive Midwest hourly rates.

“Being a Midwest big firm is really a sweet spot. Our rates are usually lower than an East Coast firm, so we can be cost-effective and also have that deep bench,” Stedman said.

Government

Does size matter when it comes to government interaction?

During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal, Milwaukee County Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern said, “The largest law firm we deal with is the State Public Defender’s Office. Big law firms almost never handle criminal matters in Milwaukee County Circuit Court.”

A couple of counties to the northwest offer a different perspective.

During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal, Fond Du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, who serves as president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, said how size matters in selecting a law firm depends on the context.

“Civil and criminal context is very different,” Toney said. “When you look at a criminal context, usually hiring an attorney from a bigger firm might have more paralegals and other access,” Toney said, noting that the public defender’s office has access to more resources.

According to Toney, public defenders typically have two attorneys assigned in a homicide case.

“This gives greater eyes on reviewing discovery,” Toney said, noting that in Wisconsin it’s not common to see “an army of attorneys in a criminal case.”

Toney also noted another advantage of attorneys who work in big law.

“When you’re a solo practitioner, if you’re on vacation, all of that work is waiting for you when you get back. At a larger firm, you can have people doing all of that work while you’re away,” Toney said.

There are also big law advantages for clients, Toney noted.

“Some advantages to clients are a more rapid response,” Toney said, noting that prosecutors’ offices in Wisconsin also have a large network of other district attorneys across the state they can rely upon to answer questions and solve problems.

“We can bounce ideas (off of other prosecutors),” he added. “Since other offices can be of assistance, we have statewide ability to reach out to prosecutors across the state and work through issues in other parts of the state where that issue has already been dealt with,” Toney said.

According to Toney, while some DA offices in Wisconsin have paralegals, his office does not.

“We do have five or six legal assistants,” Toney noted.

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