Law firms come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from single-attorney law practices to multi-state, multi-staffed legal organizations. In addition, law firms in the U.S. are generally equipped to handle nearly every legal challenge facing individuals, small businesses, and large corporations.
Depending on your legal issue, there are a variety of law firms to choose from, generally broken down by size, type of practice, (for example, litigation, criminal defense, or transactional), location, or legal topic (like personal injury law, family law or tax law.) While there is no one-size-fits all solution to solving legal problems, choosing the right law firm can make the difference between a successful outcome and missed opportunity. Knowing which law firm to hire will depend on a number of factors - including your finances, geographical location, personal work preferences, and your specific legal challenge or need.
Below is a summary of the various types of law firms available in most areas.
Solo Law Firms
As the name suggests, solo law firms are run by a single lawyer. These "solo practitioners" typically handle general legal matters on a variety of topics -- ranging from personal injury law to family law, but may also specialize in one particular area of law, like patent law. There are several benefits to working with a solo law firm, especially if you have a single legal issue to resolve or if you are looking at ways to reduce costs. Generally, solo law practices are less expensive than their larger legal counterparts, and they often have the flexibility to hire outside staff such as paralegals and legal experts - to help lower costs and/or assist with special tasks. They can also provide more one-on-one personal attention since the attorney would be working on your case usually single-handedly.
On the other hand, solo law firms may lack extensive experience or resources - especially if the attorney is a recent law graduated who recently decided to "hand up their shingle" or has limited access to fee based legal resources and data.
Small Law Firms
Small law firms, also referred to as "boutique" law firms, generally employ from two to ten attorneys -- often allowing the lawyers an opportunity to collaborate with other lawyers on complicated or related legal matters. Because of the close-knit circle of lawyers in small law firms, these firms often have the "feel" of solo law firms - such as having close one-on-one attention - but may also allow for representation on a broader range of legal topics.
Large Law Firms
Large law firms, also known as "full-service" firms, can range in size from several dozens of lawyers and employees, to several thousands of employees including lawyers, paralegals, administrative staff, human resource specialists, librarians and other staff - and can exist in multiple cities, states, and even countries.
Large law firms specialize in all areas of the law and typically have big legal departments, such as corporate, employment, and real estate groups.
Additionally, large law firms are able to handle most types of legal work, including business transactions (like mergers and acquisitions), large scale litigation, and criminal defense matters (especially "white-collar crimes".) Moreover, the typical client of a large law firm is a company, organization, or other high-stake entity, but may also represent individuals with legal issues spanning multiple practice areas.
Litigation vs. Transactional Law Firms
Law firms are sometimes broken down by the type of legal services they offer. For example, a law firm might only focus on litigation, representing clients in court cases -- or it can focus on transactional matters involving heavy paperwork relating to disputes over money, property, and insurance.
Lawyers typically do not cross over practice areas within a law firm, however. For instance, lawyers who are trained to represent clients in court hearing and at trials typically stay within this type of practice for the duration of their career. Similarly, transactional attorneys who handle corporate and other drafting-intense work may never see the inside of a courtroom.
Criminal Law Firms
Law firms specializing in criminal defense against crimes such as securities fraud, DUI and other crimes often focus on representing private clients who can afford their own criminal defense attorney (as opposed to being represented by a public defender.) A person facing criminal charges will often hire a criminal defense lawyer to assist them in all stages of the criminal process to help reduce the serious penalties often associated with criminal charges.
Moreover, because of the nature of what's at stake in criminal proceedings, lawyers who work within criminal defense law firms are usually very skilled and knowledgeable about the laws and procedures, and often have relationships with local attorneys and judges. While the cost of hiring a criminal defense law firm will vary - based on the law firm's experience, track record and location, for example - it is probably wise to speak with a variety of criminal lawyers in your area to represent you in any criminal proceedings.
Law Firms by Practice Area
In addition to size, location, and type of practice, law firms can be broken down by legal topic area. These "practice areas" refer to the types of legal issue you may be facing, or alternatively, the area of law an attorney's practice lies. Click here for a full list of practice area definitions or search for a lawyer or law firm by practice area.