Leaving big law behind:The many frustrations that cause well-paid lawyers to hang out their own shingles.

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Aug. 19 2010 5:24 PM

Leaving Big Law Behind

The many frustrations that cause well-paid lawyers to hang out their own shingles.

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Billing is what ultimately breaks the backs of a lot of partners, pushing them to start their own firms. Zwillinger and Genetski, formerly of Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal and who recently hired former Yahoo associate general counsel Elizabeth Banker, offer flat fees and monthly "all you can eat" retainer fees, with an asterisk—no litigation. Half of their work is done on an hourly basis with caps. They will guarantee that a matter won't go over $20,000, for example, and everyone bills at one rate. "It's like Sarbanes-Oxley. We have no reporting requirements," said Zwillinger, adding that, while his previous firm allowed alternative billing methods, they were measured against what would be generated in a billable hour.

Cash isn't the only reason more partners that attract clients in the $100 million-and-below sweet spot will leave. Being a Big Law partner comes with a host of responsibilities that don't necessarily yield more money, clients, or perks—unless you count camaraderie, commiseration, and, yes, tickets.

Partners are expected to cross-sell clients if there's an issue in a practice area where the partner has no expertise. It can be awkward. A partner might collaborate with a lawyer in the Houston or Miami office that isn't necessarily best suited for the job. Or partners and associates in a group may be so busy that they don't give the inherited client the attention he or she deserves—and the work suffers.

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Business conflicts also encourage partners to go out on their own. Firms get so big that conflicts become unmanageable and partners turn down business because it might offend a high-revenue-generating client. "There's a secret chamber of partners that make these decisions that have no basis in logic," said Ifrah.  While working on a large securities fraud case in California, he needed to subpoena banks, but the firm considered it adverse to potential future banking clients.

Ultimately, while Big Law is definitely not dead, the increasingly diverse models ensure an end to the days when clocking time as a Big Law partner is the best measure of success in the legal profession. Of course, with the changing definition of the firm, time in that world is changing, too.

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Jill Priluck is a writer living in New York City.