The strength of small

Peter George writes about the strength of small law firms from first-hand experience, reflecting on his journey from in-house counsel to a large national firm to CIE Legal – and the benefits that small firms bring to clients, partners, staff and families. 

Recently, Globility released the results of a survey into ‘Global Trends in Hiring Outside Counsel’. It revealed that 62% of respondents believe small law firms are better at client service and 43% believe them to be more innovative than their big counterparts. This might be news to some, but, for small law firms all over the country (Australia), it confirms what we already know.

Time was that ‘small’ was a dirty word. Legal services were all about law firms and not just any firm, but a big, preferably  international partnership located in an expensive city centre office. I’ve lost count of the amount of time I’ve heard “we’re a full-service firm” or “we have the largest [take-your-pick] team in the country”, the implication being that, however the service was delivered, whatever the style of the lawyer, however thoughtful or innovative the approach, size trumped all.  Now, as we know, things are changing. Now, the need for legal advice no longer automatically leads to instructing a law firm. Now, even if a law firm is instructed, it’s no longer necessary for that firm to be big, international and multi-office.

The time of the small firm has arrived

Several factors converged to make now our moment. First, technology enables small organisations to achieve efficiencies, reach and scale that were the preserve of large, well-funded practices a decade ago. Second, the rise of ‘gig’ or freelance resources enables small firms to power big projects, by augmenting a core of employed lawyers with contract lawyers to add scale or specific expertise. And last, small firms are used to operating in a lean and efficient way: having only 20 colleagues tends to focus the mind.

As the Globality report highlights, clients perceive this. The tide is turning, not only towards alternative providers of legal services but towards alternative law firms: small, focused, high quality boutiques who are doing law their way.

This is not to say that large law firms are bad. Of course they aren’t. The point is that small firms can be just as good and I speak from experience: I was a partner in a very large firm for nearly 20 years and now am a partner at a small, 25 person – firm. At my firm, it takes a two-minute walk of the office to call a team meeting, so we spend less time arranging conference calls and more time thrashing-out ideas. We can agree to a client’s unique needs with a five-minute meeting of the partners instead of preparing a lengthy justification for signoff. Our size means we all contribute to a strategy based squarely in reality and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this creates a clear and common purpose that is palpable.

It’s not all plain sailing, though. There are times when I’d give anything for a marketing manager ready to help at a moment’s notice. I’d love to have the resources to avoid ever drafting a pitch from scratch again or to monitor the reception desk while our office manager is away. Then there’s the downside of being a small, supportive team. If we’re not careful, we can become insular in our thinking and comfortable in our actions. And we have to work hard to achieve any kind of profile, an issue borne out by the Globility report which suggests that GCs would use smaller firms more if only they knew how and where to find them.

So being in a small firm is no picnic and we certainly don’t always get it right. But we do find that our size enables us to move quickly to effect change, be practical and approachable in our client service and work with colleagues in a human – and humane – way. I love this way of working and a quick straw poll around the office this afternoon suggests that my colleagues feel the same. No one here is surprised by the results of the Globility report, but a few admitted to wondering why it has taken so long for people to realise the strength of small.


Peter is the Managing Partner of CIE Legal in Melbourne. Colleagues describe him as the ‘wise owl’ of the firm, with a background that combines an in-house counsel role at Ford Australia with 20 years as a partner at Minter Ellison.

Peter has seen it all. When he started in the automotive industry, it wasn’t quite horse and buggies, but bench seats were all the rage. Now he’s advising on self-driving cars and online selling. Despite, or perhaps, because of, his experience, Peter is not ‘precious’. He’s a straight talker who likes to work with, rather than simply for his clients to achieve the best results. ‘Trusted advisor’ is an over-used description, but in Peter’s case, it’s apt.

This article first appeared in Lawyers Weekly February 12, 2108.


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