What Exactly Is a 'Boutique' Law Firm?

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By William Peacock, Esq. on October 02, 2014 9:21 AM

Someone asked me the other day about "boutique" law firms. My response was a stutter and a mumble about specialization. But the truth is, if you go on Craigslist or Google and look for firms, chances are that you'll see a whole heck of a lot of firms flinging around that adjective.

From an informal office poll, none of us could really tell if a "boutique" firm really was a distinct thing, or just another marketing term tossed around on the Internet and on business cards. The message to clients from these highfalutin' firms is that this is more than your ordinary shingle-hanger -- the adjective provides some assurance that this is a specialized firm focusing on close attention (though it's true that all firms pretty much promise that). Going with a boutique also means the client doesn't pay for 57 practice areas that a BigLaw firm covers, but she never needs.

But even with all that said, "boutique" is still a nebulous concept.

A Boutique Firm Is Not...

How about we start by looking at what a boutique firm is not:

  • It's not BigLaw. A boutique firm is, by definition, a smaller outfit than your MoFos and Cravaths. If one were to describe what the term "boutique" implies, it almost certainly brings to mine a small shop. In fact, Oxford says that the term is French, and means "small shop."
  • It's not '"any case that walks in the door." Oxford also says that a boutique is a "business that serves a sophisticated or specialized clientele." So shingle-hangers with 57 practice areas (your old-school small town generalist) are not boutique attorneys.
  • It's not a newbie firm. You can't serve "sophisticated or specialized clientele" if you, yourself, have no specialty. Recent graduates need not apply, it seems -- most true boutique firms are staffed with BigLaw refugees or government service folks looking to make fat stacks off of private practice.
  • It's not cheap. Anything with a French adjective is probably expensive, except for the French press. Ditto for anything specialized and staffed with experienced attorneys.

Are You a Boutique? Better Question: Do You Have Boutique Clients?

You may be experienced. You may have a small firm. But should you call yourself a "boutique" firm?

Let's start with your target clientele: If you have high-end clients with lots of money to spend, then a nice office and a nice adjective might help to create the impression that you are worth a high hourly rate. (Your work product, of course, will justify the hour rate after the fact.)

But if you represent budget-minded folks (personal injury, DUI defense, landlord-tenant), you could very well scare off potential clients by giving the impression that your legal services are priced beyond their means.

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