Bigger is not always better for law firms

Some find career happiness with switch to smaller organizations

Patrice Durbin (left) and Steven Lukas left the international firm Fasken Martineau to join the single-office Harper Grey LLP in Vancouver | Rob Kruyt

There is a trend of law firms consolidating into multinational players, as seen earlier this year when Vancouver’s Bull Housser & Tupper LLP merged with the larger Norton Rose Fulbright.

But for some firms, there is wisdom in staying small. And while large firms grab prestige and name recognition, many lawyers say life is better at a small firm.

“It is like I went from being a C-suite officer in a multinational to doing my own startup,” said Steven Lukas, who recently left a partnership at the international firm Fasken Martineau to join Harper Grey LLP, which has only one office, in Vancouver.

When Lukas and fellow Fasken partner Prentice Durbin left Fasken to join Harper Grey, Harper Grey had 57 lawyers, and 53 of them were litigators.

Lukas and Durbin, however, focus on corporate commercial work instead of litigation.

“I have the ability to come in here and help build Harper Grey’s corporate commercial side in my own image, rather than worrying about whether I can fit within the mould of a bigger firm.”

Conflicts of interest within smaller firms are also rare, he said.

Law firms are not allowed to represent a specific client in one case when that same client is a defendant in another lawsuit in which the law firm is representing the plaintiff.

The larger a law firm gets, the more likely it is that another office of that firm is in a conflict situation with a potential new client.

“The number of conflicts is absolutely minimal at Harper Grey, and, more importantly, we know whether we have a conflict within minutes,” Lukas said. “At a large firm, they could make a client wait days.”

David Wotherspoon agreed that conflicts are a lot less likely at his new firm, MLT Aikins.

Wotherspoon similarly left Fasken in the past year and, like Lukas, said his reason for leaving was the opportunity to go to a smaller firm.

“By being smaller, we can be more nimble and more flexible in our approach to meeting client needs,” he said.

Other lawyers say that they prefer working at a smaller firm because the overhead is lower.

Some smaller firms, like larger ones, compete for downtown office space in brand new buildings, so there may be no saving there.

Large firms, however, can rack up extra expenses for things such as additional administrative staff. There may be someone whose job title is director of diversity, director of e-library services or director of student interns, said Terra Law Corp. principal Glenn Leung.

Leung and three others broke away from their roles as partners at a national law firm in Vancouver in 2013, and have since turned Terra into a 12-lawyer boutique real estate practice.

He estimated that Terra Law’s fees are 15% to 20% below those of large firms that provide the same level of service – an advantage made possible by cutting unnecessary costs.

“The real estate industry and clients in Vancouver were not seeing the value of having big national law firms represent them because the bigger law firms were, perhaps, more interested in mergers and acquisitions and bigger-public-company stuff,” he said.

Lawyers in legal niches, such as mergers and acquisitions, often get paid more and are therefore able to shoulder extra administrative costs, he added.

Gregg Fabbro, who is also a principal at Terra Law, said another inefficiency he noticed when he was at a large firm was that there would be more meetings than necessary, such as large partner meetings in Toronto.•