Boutique law firms with a specialist focus are on the rise, according to the 2016 Australia: State of the Legal Market white paper published by Melbourne Law School and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor. While major law firms are facing multiple challenges including rising costs and uneven profitability, boutique law firms have been quietly thriving. To explore this trend, Insights investigated what boutique law firms do, who they serve, and how they are evolving to remain competitive.
One of the white paper’s main findings was that boutique law firms have diversified in scope and focus. While the traditional concept of a boutique firm saw a focus on a specific practice area – for example, employment law or corporate M&A – new versions of boutique firms are now emerging.
One approach is to concentrate on a particular client industry or sector. Thoroughbred Legal, for example, serves the thoroughbred industry, including horse owners, horse breeders, trainers, veterinarians, thoroughbred operations, studs and farms. As the firm notes on its website, the thoroughbred industry faces a different, highly specific regulatory environment and commercial context, meriting lawyers with thoroughbred business experience and an understanding of how business is done in this industry. As a result, Thoroughbred Legal offers specialised services, such as advice on Equine Law, racing and breeding agreements and syndication.
A variation of this approach is for boutique firms to supplement their core practice area with other areas of practice useful to their client base. For example, some family law practitioners who manage the marital disputes of high net worth couples are adding corporate law and tax law as supplementary areas of practice to help settle these disputes.
“Boutique firms aren’t necessarily small. Rather, a boutique law firm is an expert in a particular area of the law and, by specialising, stands out by offering deeper knowledge, improved service consistency and, potentially reduced prices to its clients. These firms represent the future of competition for both small and large law firms, full service or otherwise,” Thomson Reuters commercial director Carl Olsen told Lawyers Weekly.
Carla Parsons, director of boutique firm Parsons Legal, embodies this highly-competitive, expert-driven approach. As one of only 43 Accredited Specialists in Succession Law in Queensland, Parsons has been recognised by the Queensland Law Society for holding a high level of competency, experience and expert knowledge in succession law. In addition, Parsons holds roles as an Assistant Professor with Bond University and as Adjunct Lecturer with the College of Law, and works with wealth management professions to run tailored Will and Estate education and information sessions. She also recently completed her LLM (Applied Law), majoring in wills and estates, with the College of Law.
“The benefits of the right mentoring, training and practical hands-on experience can definitely be found in boutique firms,” said Parsons. “In fact, the opportunity for career progression is often fast-tracked in the smaller team environment.”
Parsons noted that another distinct advantage of the boutique firm is the “ability to be a direct part of setting the team and firm culture.”
“You feel not only part of the team but also part of the bigger picture too.”
“While the prestige of a firm’s name may have worked in the past, clients today increasingly want to connect with their lawyers and advisers in a more open and authentic way. A boutique-style practice can encourage that type of connection, while offering clients high-quality service based on significant accumulated experience in a relevant area,” said Olsen.
Parsons agrees. “Boutique firms can also offer a more client-centric and intimate approach. Compared to the grandness of some of the larger firms, this can provide a more comfortable and welcoming environment for clients,” she said.
“I have had feedback that the hands-on, personalised experience is a clear benefit of the boutique firm setting. In many cases, clients are not only dealing with their file manager but also have the advantage of direct contact with the head of the firm as well.”