Should a Solo Join a Bigger Law Firm? Is Bigger Better?

It’s common for the successful solo practitioner to have bigger law firms approach them for recruiting the practitioner and joining forces. It’s also common for those practitioners to seriously consider the offer, often thinking the grass may be greener. But what makes these offers so tempting? There are many reasons, some of which are sensible, but most of which are not.

What Makes a Successful Solo Practitioner

Before we dive into the reasons that tempt solos to seriously consider offers from bigger firms, let’s first be clear on how I define a successful solo practitioner. To fit in this category:

  • You must regularly take home a six-figure salary.
  • You have one or two staff members.
  • Your entire book of business is between a quarter-of-a-million and three-quarters-of-a-million dollars.

Sensible Reasons to Consider Joining a Bigger Firm

The following are the most sensible reasons to consider joining a bigger law firm:

  • You hate or are incapable of running the business side of your firm.
  • You regularly turn down business because your firm has insufficient horsepower to get the work out.
  • You see synergies with the bigger firm’s other practice areas. Genuine cross-selling is possible.

All these reasons are compelling—with one caveat. Don’t be too tempted by the cross-selling rationale. On paper, it looks great. In practice, cross-selling is very, very difficult to execute well. Just ask any of your colleagues at other firms.

Fundamentally Flawed Reasons to Consider a Move

The following thoughts often make these opportunities appear highly compelling for solos:

  • “The larger firm must be more stable and would offer me greater job security.”
  • “I would have a guaranteed salary—I’ll no longer have to deal with the stress of not knowing what I will make month to month.”
  • “It’s a bigger firm, so I’ll make more money.”

These reasons are highly flawed. Let’s dive deeper to better understand each of them.

  • Greater job security: At the end of the day, lawyers with the most job security are the ones with the most clients. Period. Just ask anyone who has been asked to leave a firm because of a small to non-existent book. You can have that same security as a solo as with a law firm. Joining a firm adds nothing to the job security equation
  • Guaranteed salary: Read the fine print. What you may think is a guarantee is often a draw, a portion of which you may have to return if your revenues do not meet projections. And even if the draw is guaranteed, it will remain guaranteed for a very short period time if your revenues fall short. The firm will either reduce the draw or, if your revenues fall very short, terminate you. Being part of a firm may ease some cash-flow issues, but the overall bottom line does not change much.
  • More money: Just do the math! Unless you highly mismanaged your solo practice or the bigger firm will actually provide significant cross-selling opportunities that will yield more revenue for you and the firm (something that rarely occurs), this is a losing proposition. When you run the numbers, consider two things: overhead and profit. And remember the word “share.”

Overhead: As a solo, after overhead is paid all remaining revenue goes to the solo as pure profit. In a law firm, the overhead is usually higher than what a solo has been paying. In fact, I have found that many solos are wooed solely to find another warm body to share overhead. As a legal career coach, I always advise solos who consider joining a firm to look for vacant offices when taking the grand office tour. The more you see, the more you should assume that all the sweet talking by the firm’s partners has been exactly that—sweet talk. They really don’t care all that much about you; they care much, much more about getting anyone to help with the rent.

Profits: Besides sharing in overhead expenses, you now must share profits. As a solo, you keep it all. If you join a firm, others will want at least some of it. Never assume that somehow you’ll be able to continue to keep most of the profits. Remember, the law firm wants you because it thinks it will enhance the firm’s overall bottom line, i.e., to line the pockets of the other partners.

When the math is all considered, the only rational and logical reason to join a bigger firm is that you’re convinced the new platform will increase the yearly revenue above and beyond the increased overhead expense and the new reality of sharing profits. Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? No.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been approached by a bigger firm that is seeking to bring you and your book of business under their auspices, make sure you are weighing the right considerations. And when considering the question, “Is bigger better?” know the answer is often, “Usually not.” Sometimes, “small is beautiful.”

Our firm is glad we went through the strategic and succession planning process with Roy and have implemented many of his suggestions. Not surprisingly, some, though not all, of Roy’s ideas were things that I, as the firm’s leader, had wan…" Read the rest
– Managing partner, small central NE law firm

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