Bigger not best for all: drophead Many attorneys find greener pastures in smaller practices after leaving major firms

not Bigger leaving best for red all tape drophead Many attorneys find greener pastures in smaller practices after leaving major firms

When lawyers Debra Miller and James Fisher fled legal powerhouse Ice Miller LLP and the prestigious partner status they had earned, their stable of coworkers swiftly sank from nearly 250 to none.

Yet 15 months later, after the pair left the largest law firm in the city, they say they’re quite content practicing together at Miller & Fisher LLC, a two-person boutique concentrating on commercial litigation.

“One of the only good reasons for leaving any group is that you conclude you’re better off without it,” said Miller, 47, who spent 22 years at Ice Miller. “You don’t make a move [without] having some comfort that you have a pretty solid client base.”

Miller graduated from the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis in 1984 and immediately went to work at Ice Miller, ascending to partner 6-1/2 years later. Her tenure there was highlighted by a five-year stint as chairwoman of the litigation section.

But along the way she became disillusioned with what she perceived as a progressing conservative personality that discouraged risk-taking, and a proliferating client base that provoked too many potential conflicts of interest. Those potential conflicts ultimately lead lawyers to turn down cases, even desirable ones.

While large law firms are in no danger of going the way of the paper-based legal library, more attorneys are willing to leave the security of an established practice for the challenges of a smaller office or not-for-profit.

The majority of law school graduates continue to take jobs in the private sector, but the percentage of jobs at private firms-particularly large ones-has declined each year since the class of 2001, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Law Placement.

The greatest concerns cited were strong billable-hour expectations and high attrition rates. The same reserva- tions can pertain to their more seasoned brethren, said Ward Bower, a principal at the Newton Square, Pa.-based Altman Weil Inc. legal consultancy.

“We see people who are experienced as partners who are another cog in the wheel of an enormous organization that is very different [from] the firm they joined 30 years ago,” he said. “Plus, they have tremendous pressure on them in terms of billable hours, and they find their practices increasingly specialized in smaller and smaller niches, and it’s not rewarding anymore.”

Miller, who grew tired of the large corporate work that had become too predictable, can relate. As a tradeoff, more administrative obligations and less security without the earnings of a large partnership motivate her to work even harder. Yet the days seem more enjoyable, and she’s making more money, Miller insisted.

Entrepreneurial slant

Chuck Baldwin was among nine members of Locke Reynolds LLP’s Labor and Employment Group who bolted the firm in May 2000 to help launch a local office for Atlanta-based Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC.

The 49-year-old Baldwin had been a partner at Indianapolis-based Locke and liked his colleagues and the environment well enough, but became concerned the group would lose opportunities if it didn’t have a larger platform from which to serve clients.

Ogletree Deakins is a national practice with 28 locations and roughly 400 lawyers. The Indianapolis office since has grown to 24 lawyers and employs several refugees from the city’s Big Three law firms-Ice Miller, Barnes & Thornburg LLP and Baker & Daniels LLP.

Despite the results, not everyone was convinced the nine lawyers were making the right decision, Baldwin recalled.

“Some people thought we were crazy,” he said. “A judge who lived nearby asked me for a ride to work, simply to find out what was going on. That was the only time she called for a ride to work, before or after [the move].”

The lawyers starting anew certainly savored the support of the home office, much like a franchisee, but they had to make it successful, nonetheless. In that sense, attorneys who branch out on their own are much like entrepreneurs, legal experts said.

They have trouble with the anonymity of a large firm and often end up feeling like a number, said Mike McConnell, a former legal consultant who chairs the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board.

“People who have an entrepreneurial bent are more likely to go from a large to a small firm, for the simple reason there are less rules,” he said. “The perception is that there’s more of a collegial feel to a smaller firm.”

That is reality for Beth Young of Robinson Wolenty & Young LLP, a real estate firm consisting of five lawyers. Young, 49, practiced at Baker & Daniels for three years and later at Bose McKinney & Evans for 14 years before leaving both when the number of attorneys topped 100.

The reason: Young likened the firms to a corporation more than a partnership, in that policies were instituted that differed from how she wanted to conduct her practice, she said.

Young avoided leaving Bose McKinney for years because she feared she would need to expand her practice beyond real estate development and become a general practitioner. Referrals she receives from large law firms conflicted from taking certain cases have saved Young from taking such a desperate measure.

Pros and cons

Drawbacks to leaving big firms persist, however.

Benefits, salary progression and retirement plans theoretically are not as competitive at small firms as they are at large firms. And deserved or not, McConnell said, there’s an aura of prestige to the bigger, historic offices.

Small firms are more vulnerable to market swings and acquisitions, and usually not as stable, McConnell said. Further, they typically have smaller clients whose work may be less sophisticated.

But that’s not always the case. Jeff Hokanson, 45, said his work since joining Hostetler & Kowalik PC in late March is every bit as complex as any bankruptcy he litigated at larger firms.

Hokanson gleaned his skills in the debtor and creditor rights arena while at the former Ancel & Dunlap bankruptcy boutique and put them to good use at Bose McKinney and later Ice Miller.

“It’s probably like living in a small town rather than a big city,” Hokanson said, “and I’m a small-town guy.”

Hostetler & Kowalik boasts seven lawyers and a stress level Hokanson is sure will return his gray hair to its original brown.

To be sure, the work-lifestyle debate is becoming more important to professionals, particularly to the generations following the baby boomers, Bower at Altman Weil said.

They are attending law school at a time when females make up more than half the student population, leading to more twolawyer households where the earnings potential is greater. But if either wants to take a pay cut to pursue a more enjoyable career, the combined salaries still are at least adequate, Bower said.

Miller, who has been away from Ice Miller more than a year now, said she still keeps in contact with her closest colleagues and cherishes those relationships.

It’s doubtful she’ll ever return to her former work life, but for others, anything is possible.

“If this little firm fell apart, would I consider going back to a large firm?” Young at Robinson Wolenty asked. “Probably not … but maybe.”

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