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by Vault Law Editors | March 10, 2009

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Bankruptcy law provides a multitude of options for the aspiring bankruptcy ace. First, there's the basic choice between corporate and consumer bankruptcies. Then, the decision to specialize, or at least slant your practice towards a particular aspect. And within each of these categories lies further sub-groups, based on the nature of the client, the type of work performed, the size of the firm . . . the permutations are pretty endless.

There is as much room within the bankruptcy world for the bankruptcy boutique full-service bankruptcy practitioner, representing all clients in all proceedings, as there is for the Chapter 11 tax specialist, as there is for the solo proprietor of a thriving consumer practice. This section discusses many (although by no means all, given the breadth of the bankruptcy world) options for a satisfying bankruptcy practice.

Choosing (or not choosing) a specialty

If you've been reading this guide carefully you'll see that one running theme is the generalist nature of the bankruptcy practice. For many bankruptcy attorneys, the most unique and exciting aspect of the practice is that it allows you to be a "renaissance man," practicing all sorts of law -- litigation, transactional, and more.Other practitioners, however, choose one area of bankruptcy on which to hone in. The biggest split is between litigation and "corporate," or transactional, work. Many bankruptcy attorneys focus on litigation, primarily litigating avoidance actions or creditor claims and otherwise handling the courtroom duties. Many of these litigators started out with general commercial practices, but found, as did bankruptcy litigator Celine Guillou, that bankruptcy litigation offered a more collegial and civil practice. Others focus on the transactional aspects of bankruptcy, such as the acquisitions or financing, and predominantly represent parties, such as secured lenders or debtors, requiring such expertise.

Still others claim a "niche within a niche," as Mark Wallace describes his bankruptcy tax practice, in which he helps reorganizing debtors structure and minimize their post-bankruptcy tax obligations, negotiates tax claims in bankruptcy, and otherwise counsels debtors on tax-related aspects of their cases. These self-described "super-specialists" like Wallace create a bankruptcy specialty within another specialty, such as tax or environmental law. Such refined specialization is most notable at bankruptcy boutiques where the volume of bankruptcy cases keeps these "sub-niche" specialists extremely busy. Wallace finds that his unique specialty "rewards you in thoroughly understanding a narrow portion of the law." In addition, it increases your marketability -- you have both a unique practice with little competition, and two areas (in Wallace's case, bankruptcy and tax) in which you claim knowledge and expertise.

Making bankruptcy just one ingredient

Many of these specialists play the hokey-pokey and keep one foot in bankruptcy, the other foot out. An M&A specialist, for instance, might spend half his time representing debtors and purchasers in bankruptcy asset sales, and the other half working on non-bankruptcy mergers and acquisitions. This is particularly common at large law firms, where the core bankruptcy attorneys will bring in their non-bankruptcy colleagues to do their specialist thing in the bankruptcy proceedings. This is often the case for commercial financing and UCC specialists, for example, who might be on call for both bankruptcy and non-bankruptcy secured transactions. The advantage of this yin-yang practice is its versatility; they can focus more on bankruptcy when the economy is down and bankruptcies up, and slide back to non-bankruptcy transactions when the economy switches gears.

Big firms vs. small firms vs. going out on your own

For most bankruptcy practitioners, the next big question is the type of firm in which they practice. Would you prefer the comforts, pay and sophistication of a large firm? Or the camaraderie and focus of a smaller firm? Or, for the brave, the autonomy and independence of a solo or two-person practice? Each has its benefits and drawbacks, although keep in mind that every firm, large or small, has "it's own personality," notes New York City-based practitioner Shari Siegel.

Large firms

Often, the legal profession seems to revolve around the large firms. They are the ones that make headlines, representing the sexiest clients in the sexiest matters; they are the ones that offer fat salaries, allowing you to pay off your law school debt in a mere five or six years; and they are the ones with which your law school career office is most preoccupied. But is a big firm for you?

Forgetting about all the perks, the big paychecks and bonuses and Lincoln-Continentals depositing you home at night (more on that shortly), large law firms also accord you other benefits; rotation through many areas of law; exposure to cutting edge legal issues; top-notch continuing legal education programs; pro bono opportunities galore; and a band of gold through your resume. The advantages are many.

But not all is roses and caviar in big firm land. It has drawbacks, as you've likely heard. Remember the Lincoln Continentals? That's more of a safety feature than a lavish perk at midnight. Large law firms demand a lot of their associates, with evening and weekend work and flexibility (i.e. the ability to delay a dinner or vacation) expected by many clients and partners. There is often greater pressure and anxiety at a large firm, and less camaraderie given the high associate turnover. Shyer associates run the risk of getting lost in the shuffle, with more confident and poised associates often getting all the attention and the best assignments.

Law firms can be rough places; each firm is different, however, and many attorneys find a warm community at their particular law firm. This is particularly true once you find your niche, such as bankruptcy law; being a member of a smaller department can feel like working at a firm with a firm, according you the benefits of a large firm with the environment of a smaller firm. As a first-year rotating through departments, you might feel lost; finding a niche can often feel like finding a professional home. And even among those attorneys who eventually find satisfaction at smaller law firms, there is often a sense that at least one tour of duty at a large firm should be mandatory for new practitioners. Large firms often offer larger and more complex cases, superior continuing legal education programs, and exposure to and training in areas of law beyond bankruptcy.

For some attorneys, a large firm is great training ground, in many ways a post-graduate education which also pumps up your resume and pays off your six-figure law school loans. For others, though, a large firm can become their professional home, giving them an exciting, cutting-edge, and lucrative practice unavailable anywhere else.

Smaller firms and bankruptcy boutiques

Smaller firms, including most firms identified as "bankruptcy boutiques" -- firms which specialize in bankruptcy and other restructuring and insolvency issues -- offer a different experience than their larger compadres. Think of it like a small liberal arts college versus a massive university. While the latter might be appealing in its never-ending choice of classes, clubs and study abroad programs, at the small college, everybody knows your name. For many attorneys, the intimate atmosphere, relative absence of bureaucracy, and higher quality of life (i.e. lower billable hours expectations) make smaller firms happier places to practice law than the big guys.

Your wallet feels the biggest trade-off from working at a smaller firm; salaries rarely match those at large firms. In addition, smaller firms typically handle smaller, less sophisticated cases, and have fewer resources supporting their lawyers; compared to large firms with a full legal library, 24-hour word processing departments, and a cafeteria offering four dinner entrees every night, most small firms are more reliant on internet legal databases, offer a word processing department of two that closes at 8:00 p.m., and have, at best, a kitchen with two vending machines and a McDonald's downstairs.

For many, however, this is a small price to pay for the collegial atmosphere of many smaller firms. Many associates enter large firms expecting to stay for two years, at most; more often, they enter smaller firms hoping to stay for life. Although small firm lawyers work hard, on average they have less billable hour pressure and receive more respect for their out-of-office lives, justifying their reputations as "lifestyle" or "quality of life" firms. "Smaller firms are often more selective in terms of hiring for personalities," finds Celine Guillou, a large firm veteran now with the fifteen-person San Francisco office of the bankruptcy boutique Puschulski . . .. , noting that she met with every attorney during her interviews at Puschulski.

Bankruptcy boutiques offer a unique twist on small firm life, with their attorneys eating, breathing and sleeping bankruptcy. Some bankruptcy attorneys at large firms feel like they are in competition with other departments, and often do not receive sufficient respect from their colleagues, especially during flush times when, say, the securities department is in a frenzy. By contrast, at a bankruptcy boutique, bankruptcy is king. These firms are often very well-connected to their cities' bankruptcy scenes, filled with former bankruptcy judge clerks and Chapter 7 trustees. For the associate who has decided to devote his practice to bankruptcy, a bankruptcy boutique might be the right destination.

Sole practitioners and small firms

And then, there are the brave entrepreneurs of the profession -- the lone practitioners, out there flying solo or with one or two partners, shingles proudly waving amid their increasingly growing and consolidating neighbors. Brian Behar, of Behar, Gutt & Glazer, P.A. in Boca Raton, Florida, started his own firm with two partners a decade ago. He enjoys the independence and the satisfaction of building up his own successful business. Behar, like other attorneys who have started their own ships, appreciates that he only has to "answer to himself and his partners," without the massive bureaucracy of a large firm. And "every morning, I see the couches and the computers at my office, and think, I built this," he adds, pointing out the most satisfying fruits of his labor and initiative.

But more so than other attorneys, practitioners with their own firms must be "both lawyers and businessmen," as Behar puts it. Behar counsels against hanging out your shingle right after law school; regardless of your business skills, no recent law graduate can truly call themselves a lawyer, Juris doctor and bar membership notwithstanding. Instead, Behar recommends starting out at a law firm, where you can learn how to be a lawyer, become a part of the legal community, and develop a network of contacts. Once you've mastered the lawyer part of the equation, your attention can turn towards developing your business muscles, leaving the safe perch of a firm for the uncharted territory of your own practice. Attorneys who have founded their own successful firms carry particular pride and satisfaction in their careers; but they first needed to build the foundation to make that possible.

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