Most of my law school buddies are planning to work for big firms. I'm not exactly at the
top of my class, and I think I want to join a small law firm anyway. Is this a mistake?
How do I find a good small firm?
Insider Advice from
Attorney At Law
For A Small Law Firm:
How To Choose A Location
Most of the graduates from any law school will find employment in small firms. The
historical rate has been that about two-thirds will be employed in the type of small firms
that do not exist in the world most of your professors live in. Your professors are just
completely unconnected to the realities of most legal practice.
Ask yourself how many faculty members have worked as solo
practitioners or in firms of five or fewer attorneys. How many have ever proved up a
divorce, probated a will or defended a misdemeanor prosecution? How many have pursued an
unlitigated personal injury claim or settled a workers compensation benefit?
About sixty percent of the graduates from
"good" law schools do these things regularly in their practices. You will learn
how to practice law from the judges, attorneys and clients you encounter in your first few
professional engagements. Most crucial will be the first (or the second) law firm you find
employment with. Law school should have taught you how to think; your first employment
will teach you how to practice law.
This article consists of two parts. First, it explores
the question of which small firms you should consider, which ones you should avoid and
which ones you should be careful of. Second, we will discuss considerations that should
affect your choice of where (i.e., the state and county) you will choose practice law.
Evaluating the small firm
The majority of people who find employment with a small firm find only
"temporary" employment. Most small firms turnover their staff somewhere between
every six months to six years. In my own practice, six years after I had accepted a job in
Texas, none of the firms I had interviewed at that time were still listed in
In Wichita Falls, Texas, only one small firm still
existed in the same form it existed in when I moved here after ten years, and none existed
Small firm attrition is no worse than large firm
The keys to
Stability in the practice of law comes from three things -- all of which
you control. The three things are:
- competent legal work,
- sociability with other lawyers, and
- client satisfaction.
If your legal work is competent, if you get along well
with other lawyers, and if your clients like you and remember your name, then in the long
run you will have as much stability in your legal practice as anyone else (which may or
may not be much).
All of these things take time to develop in a small firm
setting. They are important to keep in mind when looking at a small firm. However, as you
look, keep in mind that your stay with a small firm will most likely be a temporary thing.
When evaluating a small firm you need to consider and evaluate it with the temporary
nature of your employment firmly in mind.
The keys to a firms
What you want in a small firm is a firm that does competent work, that is
friendly with other lawyers and that is liked by its clients. More, you want a firm that
will help you develop those characteristics in yourself. Such things are much more
important than initial or starting pay, the size of offices, the lack of benefits, or
Money and status-related perks often are much more
flexible than beginning associates realize. More money and better perks are the entire
reason for horizontal moves. (Small firms routinely engage in horizontal hires. They
pursue competent attorneys they like and attorneys who can attract clients).
In evaluating a firm, look for the leading indicators
that reflect these three critical bases.
The first base, competence, is reflected in professional reputation
(including Martindale-Hubble ratings), library size, the billing rates and win/loss
records. All of these can help you get a feel for the general competence of the work done
by a firm.
Important clues also include the number of hours worked
by firm members. Fewer hours usually means better focus and skill in the hours worked.
The firms reputation among other lawyers is
important. Outside opinions generally are a better barometer of the skill of the attorneys
in a firm than is the opinion of the firm itself. Sometimes the best "other
lawyers" to ask about a firm's competence are associates or partners who have left
the firm. Alumni in the area are an invaluable resource. Alumni will often tell you more
than they would tell their own partners.
When you are evaluating firms, go for the ones that do
high quality work. Be leery of a firm that does extremely shoddy work. Most firms are in
the middle. What you want is a small firm that will allow you to do good, competent work.
As long as the hour and output requirements of a firm are reasonable, you can do competent
work -- on your own time if necessary. Remember, good work is something that you do not
only for your clients, but for your reputation.
The second base, sociability with other lawyers (e.g., getting along,
being personable), is easily checked by asking about the local bar association and the
specialty organizations (if any) the local bar has. The attitude shown by the partner in
describing various local organizations will clue you as to whether that partner is
sociable or not. If she is positive, attends meetings and activities or holds offices,
then she is sociable. If she derides the bar association, considers such things a waste of
time, or is hostile, then she is not sociable.
Note that regardless of whether or not the firm is
sociable, as long as they allow you to be sociable, you can benefit. Again, high hour
firms tend not to "allow" sociability. A firm that requires 2,700 billable hours
a year does not have room for collegial endeavors. Look for a sociable firm.. Again, high hour
firms tend not to "allow" sociability. A firm that requires 2,700 billable hours
a year does not have room for collegial endeavors. Look for a sociable firm.
Finally, you want a firm that will allow you client contact. You cannot
benefit from your contributions to client satisfaction if you dont have contact with
clients. Client contact is the only way that you gain a reputation with clients and the
only way you learn to please them. Faceless staff attorneys are invariably the last hired,
the first cut, and the lowest paid at every level.
You need to avoid a firm that insulates associates from
clients. (Many firms do this to "protect" themselves from having associates
steal clients). You also need to take the time and opportunity to deal with clients every
chance that presents itself. The experience is invaluable.
An elusive goal: Training
Ideally, you should also find a small firm that has some commitment to
training. That is so unlikely as to be at best an elusive dream. Most attorneys in small
firms have no idea of how to train others, having never been formally trained (other than
in school) or mentored themselves. At best you should find a firm where the partner or
partners are not excessively hostile to the idea of helping or explaining legal tasks.
Unfortunately, you will probably have to train yourself.
This is something that law schools do not address, small firms are unprepared to do, and
it is a task you did not expect.
In this regard, you need to look for tolerance (how
patient are the two or three lawyers that you will be working with/for) and for
willingness to help.
Generally, competent, sociable and likable attorneys with
reasonable work loads are more tolerant and willing to help than are those who are
overburdened, non-sociable or hostile.
Evaluating the location of the
of the community
Client esteem, professional stature and personal perceptions are all matters of reputation
that do not travel well outside of your community. Since you can expect to be moving into
the larger community, evaluating the area or location is actually more important that the
evaluation you make of the first firm you work for in that community.
A community needs to offer two things. First, it needs to have a
financial future. Second, it needs to offer that sort of society where you and your family
The social aspect of communities is one you have to
evaluate for yourself from your own tastes, family and needs. Compare Billings, Montana
and San Francisco, California. Both are considered heaven by some and hell by others. I
can't tell you how to decide what you like and what your family needs.
However, the economics are easier to evaluate. All you
need is an atlas, Martindale-Hubble, and some general background information. Look
carefully at the community. Has it grown or shrunk in the past ten years? Shrinking
economies are prevalent in some parts of the United States and are generally the most
difficult of markets for your legal skills.
Next, how many attorneys are there in that area? Does
Martindale-Hubble show an increase or a decrease?
Finally, how does the local economy actually look? When
you drive down a street, is there new construction, do homes sell relatively quickly, how
is unemployment and how is local government spending? These are all good indicators of the
state of the local economy and are sometimes more useful than any chart, book or map.
Look at the location and economy first, and at the firms there second.
With a little research you can find out which community
looks to grow more in the next ten years, which has the most attorneys per capita and
which appeals to you more. After your research, you can start to look at the small firms
in each area. You might go visit both areas, talk with the local bar association (easier
in smaller jurisdictions) and if you are about to graduate shoot for a
summer clerkship in one of them. (Small firms rarely have true clerkships, but many will
hire someone at reduced pay to help out for the summer, thus giving both sides the chance
to think about adding that someone to the firm).
Always take the opportunity to look through
Martindale-Hubble, the various years of the Alumni Society Directory and other guides to
identify firms, alumni and other sources of potential help, aid, or advice. State bar
journals and legal magazines are also a good source of useful information.
If your search is successful, you will land a job (or a
clerkship) at a firm in the area you are actually interested in. Your reputation with
other law firms (and thus your ability to be hired) starts with your first day of work.
A note on clerking
While clerking you are in a position to evaluate local small firms
(mostly small partnerships) in terms of their need for another lawyer or associate; their
competence; their sociability; and how their clients perceive them. Watch out for warning
signs, but look for positive notes.
Your placement office can tell you more about clerking;
but, clerking is an invaluable time to evaluate carefully a location you would consider
for the practice of law. The same is true of employment in a county attorney's office,
working for the Legal Services Corporation, and myriad of other state and local agencies.
Many of the concerns that apply to large firms do not apply to smaller
ones. Training programs -- a prime factor in large firm decisions -- don't exist.
Partnership tracks and qualifications -- crucially important in large firms -- are
irrelevant, since associates rarely become partners in small firms (assuming the firm
lasts that long).
Other concerns are much more important. First is the
quality of work -- a given for large firms. Next is sociability -- completely unimportant
to large firms. Then comes client contact and satisfaction -- generally an area alien to
large firm associates. Finally, we come to the work schedule, or the number of hours you
are expected to work -- a consideration completely foreign to large-firm thinking and
crucial to your ability to succeed in a small firm setting.
Some time ago, I worked in an office-sharing arrangement
with two attorneys who left large firm settings. One of those attorneys was offered a job
by a very large Dallas firm. He turned that offer down and instead opened the office I
shared. The other left the litigation section of a large city attorney's office in a
Metroplex location. Both attorneys practiced by choice in a small firm environment, in a
smaller town setting, in a semi-solo manner (we were in a very close office-sharing
arrangement), in lives and practices that they enjoyed.
Many attorneys, given both the experience of large and
small firms will choose small firm culture and life. There are strong economic reasons for
this choice. Altman & Weil, the legal economists, have noted that partners in small
plaintiff's firms earn significantly more than the partners at the large defense firms
that oppose them. They also work fewer hours, take more vacations and have greater
flexibility in who they have for clients and the type of work they do.
Outside of money, there are rewards and freedoms to
practicing in a small firm that are not fully disclosed in law school. If you decide to
work in a small firm, it is my hope that this article will help you choose one where you
will be successful.
Please see The Headhunter's Bookstore for suggested
Continue with Steve Marsh's Graduating from Dead-End Associate to Partner
Stephen Marsh is a lawyer and mediator in Dallas,
Texas who writes frequently about career issues in his profession. This particular article
has been used by two law school placement offices and several placement officers. Steve's web site includes the article, Everything you need to know if your
career has fallen apart.
NOTE: The advice provided above is an opinion, not
a professional service. Ask The Headhunter and the author of the advice are not
responsible for its accuracy, use or mis-use.
The contents of this site are Copyright (c)
1995-2015 North Bridge Group LLC.
All rights reserved.
This material is for personal use only. Republication and redissemination,
including posting to news groups, is expressly prohibited without prior written consent.
Ask The Headhunter, Fearless Job Hunting, the ATH logo and other ATH titles are trademarks or registered trademarks of North Bridge
Group LLC and
Nick A. Corcodilos.
agreement, legal information and disclaimer.