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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
Stephen Marsh
Attorney At Law
Certified Mediator

Working 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 Martindale-Hubble.

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 after fourteen.

Small firm attrition is no worse than large firm attrition.

The keys to your stability
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 firm’s stability
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 secretarial assignments.

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 firm’s 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.

Client contact
Finally, you want a firm that will allow you client contact. You cannot benefit from your contributions to client satisfaction if you don’t 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 small firm
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.

The quality of the 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 can live.

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.

In practice
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 resources.

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.


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