Boutique law firms in the U.S. - Statistics & Facts

Boutique law firms are law firms where all attorneys specialize in a single niche area of law, at the expense of all other areas of legal practice. This is to be contrasted to general practice firms, who provide a variety of unrelated practice areas under one common administrative structure. Key areas of law serviced by boutique firms in the United States include intellectual property, labor and employment, litigation, and technology and venture capital. Since the great recession of 2008, boutique firms have become increasingly important in the U.S. legal market. Starting in the 1980’s, the market saw a broad trend of consolidation with larger firms often expanding via the acquisition of smaller boutique firms. However, the broader scope of these larger firms meant that they were exposed to the general economic downturn of the great recession, while some smaller specialized firms escaped relatively unscathed. This competitive advantage has led to the formation of new boutique firms in recent times, with lawyers often splitting off from larger firms.

There is some confusion about what constitutes a boutique firm, with the term sometimes being used as a catchall phrase covering all small- or mid-size law firms (often, those with under 100 attorneys). However, while the majority of boutique firms are in fact small- or mid-sized, this equivalence is incorrect as the term properly refers to any firm which concentrates exclusively on a single area of law. Consequently, there are some larger firms that are also categorized as boutique. For example, boutique labor and employment firm Littler Mendleson employed 1,043 attorneys and reported total revenue of 538 million U.S. dollars in 2017, while in the same year boutique technology and venture capital firm Cooley employed 897 lawyers and reported an annual revenue of over one billion U.S. dollars.

The specialist nature of boutique firms means that often the leading firms can command high prices, even compared to the leading BigLaw firms. In 2017, boutique litigation firms Irell & Manella and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan reported some of the highest revenue per lawyer figures of any law firm in the United States, at 1.68 million and 1.6 million U.S. dollars respectively. Likewise, leading intellectual property firms Finnegan and Fish & Richardson both reported a revenue per lawyer of over one million U.S. dollars in 2017, as did leading technology firms Cooley, Fenwick & West and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. This profitability does not extend to all legal areas serviced by boutique law firms though. In the same year, the top three labor and employment firms – Seyfarth Shaw, Jackson Lewis and Littler Mendelson – reported revenue per lawyer of 737 million, 545 million and 516 million U.S. dollars respectively. This is below the average revenue per lawyer of 872,861 U.S. dollars across the top U.S. law 200 firms in 2017.

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