Trading Big Law for Legacy

For a quarter of a century, superstar commercial litigator Roberta Kaplan  was what I like to call “big law famous.” In other words, I imagine that  Kaplan, a litigation partner at powerhouse law firm Paul Weiss, was well-known to the small circle of biglaw folks who subscribe to publications Bloomberg  and American Lawyer  – but hardly a household name. Of course, does notoriety or doing life-changing work really matter anyway when you’re pulling in four million bucks a year  as a Paul Weiss partner?

Apparently, it did to Kaplan. In 2013, Kaplan got a taste of what it’s like to change the world when, while still at Paul Weiss, she successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act at the Supreme Court in US v. Windsor,  laying the foundation for the invalidation of state laws banning same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges  two years later.  And so now, as Above the Law reports, shortly after her 50th birthday, Kaplan cut the purses strings and departed Paul Weiss to launch her own boutique firm, Kaplan & Company  that will meld Kaplan’s commercial litigation practice with pro bono and public interest work.

According to various articles, Kaplan is already eyeing commercial litigation matters that are too small to be profitable for biglaw, but can work well for her more flexible practice and will get her firm into the courtroom.  What’s more, by continuing to handle commercial litigation, Kaplan can subsidize the public interest work that is her passion – an approach that I endorsed here and just yesterday suggested as a solution for court-appointed lawyers struggling along on an  exclusive diet of low bono work .

I’ve often wondered why more big law partners don’t take the same approach.  Needless to say, elitism is one factor:  no matter how many times solos and smalls win big, we’re still small potatoes  in the eyes of courts, and our biglaw colleagues and adversaries. Most biglaw attorneys, no matter how down on their luck would never even consider making a go of starting a firm.  Fortunately,t trend is changing to some degree, in a movement that is being lead by women as described in this piece  on the woman-owned trend (and with a shout-out to the newly formed Women Owned Law Association that I’m part of).  Once upon a time, the prevailing view was that women had a duty to rescue biglaw from its chauvinistic ways by sticking around to fight for a few more crumbs of  pie – but now, women are wising up and realizing that there’s a whole world out there isn’t all about big law and where they can be the stars.

Of course, money is also a tie that binds lawyers to big firms.  That’s no surprise –  particularly for lawyers in their early years of practice where they’re paying down huge loans, starting families, and saving for retirement and their own kids’ college tuition.  But after all of that, many law firm partners continue to work long after they’ve amassed a sizable stash – a phenomenon that is met with utter incomprehension by most solo and small firm attorneys – many who would feel lucky to have earned over the course of a 25-year career the same $4 million (comes to a not-so-shabby $160k a year) that Kaplan pocketed  on an annual basis.

After all, doesn’t there come a time when you’ve earned enough money as a biglaw partner over a lifetime that you do you really need more?  Many biglaw partners wouldn’t blink an eye at accepting a federal court judgeship at an annual salary of $200,000  but seem to believe that solo or small firm practice dooms them to a life of poverty.  Yet, a lawyer leaving a big firm with a small cache of clients can easily earn as much or more out of the gate than that federal court judge.

What’s more, just like the federal judge, solos and smalls really can make precedent, change the law and vindicate and champion Constitutional rights.  Alan Gura proved that in a big way, as did Mirriam Seddiq   ,  Mark Bennett, and many of the other solos and smalls profiled as Shingular Sensations.  Biglaw isn’t the only place that lawyers can earn money, but it offers few opportunities to do meaningful work. By contrast, each day, we solos and smalls have the opportunity to do work that matters and change the world on a scale both grand  and personal.

So welcome to our world, Ms. Kaplan – you’re one of us now and we solos and smalls couldn’t be prouder to claim you as our own!

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