Boutique law firm
||The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2010)|
A boutique law firm is a collection of attorneys typically organized in a limited liability partnership or professional corporation specializing in a niche area of law practice. Although a general practice law firm includes a variety of unrelated practice areas within a single firm, a boutique firm specializes in one or a select few practice areas. There may be some confusion as legal publications may refer to any small- or mid-sized firm as a boutique, though generally less than 100 attorneys would count. Boutique should apply to those firms that focus on particular areas, regardless of size, though they are typically smaller, with exception to a few firms such as Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner or Fish & Richardson with over 400 attorneys.
Mid-size law firms began losing ground in the 1980s in the consolidation of the legal market. They have been the primary means by which larger law firms from regional centers expanded in key new markets such as New York City. For example, Atlanta-based Alston & Bird acquired 50-lawyer German-focused corporate boutique Walter, Conston, Alexander & Green, P.C. in 2001. The same year, Boston-based legacy firm Bingham Dana & Gould (now known as Bingham McCutchen) merged with boutique litigation shop Richards & O'Neill and Dallas-based Jenkens & Gilchrist absorbed Parker Chapin Flattau & Klimpl. Recently[when?], Texas firm Vinson & Elkins acquired Cronin & Vris, a small bankruptcy boutique.
The pendulum began to swing back away from consolidation toward the formation of smaller boutique firms with the downturn of the economy in late 2008 and early 2009 as recession-proof niche practices began to separate themselves from the struggling behemoths. For example, Washington, D.C.-based Hautsfeld LLP spun out of Cohen Milstein and Birmingham, Alabama-based Frohsin & Barger, LLC spun out of the southern regional firm Baker Donelson. Both Hausfeld and Frohsin & Barger have been cited as examples by the National Law Journal as "somewhat recession-proof" boutiques. Other boutiques, such as Waesche, Sheinbaum & O'Regan, have dissolved.
Boutique law firms have maintained their competitive edge in a number of fields. Firms like Seattle-based Harris & Moure remain a competitive force in the international law practice. The complexities of intellectual property, especially patent law, have made IP boutiques still competitive, including Fish & Richardson, Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, Oblon, Spivak, Schwegman, Lundberg & Woessner and Wood, Herron & Evans, although New York City IP boutiques Pennie & Edmonds largely joined Jones Day, Fish & Neave merged with Boston-based Ropes & Gray, and a number of Morgan & Finnegan lawyers joined Texas-based Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell. Additionally, Alexandria-based IP boutique Burns, Doane, Swecker & Mathis merged with Pittsburgh-based Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney in 2005, Cushman, Darby & Cushman was absorbed by national firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman (then Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro), Houston-based Arnold, White & Durkee merged with Howrey (then Howrey & Simon), Los Angeles-based Lyon & Lyon dissolved in 2002, and Silicon Valley boutique Skjerven Morrill & MacPherson LLP dissolved in 2003.
Some boutique law firms can be quite large in terms of headcount. Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz has only one location in New York City and focuses on premium corporate matters and litigation, particularly in the mergers and acquisitions context. In the litigation area, Armonk, New York-based Boies, Schiller & Flexner and Washington, D.C.-based Williams & Connolly are litigation boutiques. All employ over 200 attorneys.
Looking beyond U.S. borders, litigation law firms based in Europe include Tiberghien, Oppenhoff & Partner and Tedioli, and based in Canada, Adler Bytensky Prutschi Shikhman specializes in criminal law. Thorsteinssons LLP is Canada’s largest boutique law firm practicing exclusively in tax. Their lawyers are consistently recognized among Canada’s leading tax practitioners.
- Fish & Richardson P.C., http://www.fr.com/about/index.cfm?child=about
- Tamar Lewin, Business and the Law: Smaller Firms are Vanishing, The New York Times, March 9, 1987.
- Jan Hoffman, Oldest Law Firm is Courtly, Loyal and Defunct, The New York Times, October 2, 1994.
- Alston + Bird LLP, 'History' (2007) http://www.alston.com/firm/aandb/history/
- Vinson & Elkins LLP - Announcements
- Law.com - Large Firm Layoffs Lead to Small Firm Startups
- National Law Journal - Survival Plans
- Jones Day - News/Press - Pennie & Edmonds Lawyers to Join Jones Day