How Do You Get a Job At a Small Firm? A Conversation with Eileen Liao, ‘NDLS 16

There is no doubt that the process for getting a job at a small firm is much murkier and less linear than other career paths, especially the big law path. So how can a law student put themselves in a position to get a small firm offer? Last week, I had a great conversation with Eileen Liao, NDLS 2016 and happily employed small firm lawyer, that shed some light on the subject.

Eileen Liao graduated without a job but knowing that she wanted to begin her legal career in Chicago. While studying for the bar in July after graduating, Eileen got an offer to work at Ridge & Downes, a ten person law firm specializing in workers’ compensation and personal injury law. Eileen secured this job offer through the mentor she received from the CDO mentorship program.

KM: Tell me about your law school experience.

EL: When I came to law school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted but I knew that big law wasn’t it. The hours are really unpredictable and that lifestyle isn’t for me.

I have no lawyers in my family so my vision of what a lawyer does was skewed.

I felt weird my first year of law school because nothing interested me. I kept talking to the CDO and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. For every summer job and through the Chicago program, I externed with governmental entities, including a circuit court judge my 1L summer, the city of Chicago my 2L summer, and the Department of Labor my 3L year.

I started looking at General Counsel jobs but saw that they are really hard to get. I exhausted big law and interviewed for government jobs.

I did not get great grades in law school. I even got a D.

KM: How did you come to think about working for a small firm?

EL: Through the CDO’s mentorship program. You paired me with an attorney working for a small firm in Chicago, Ridge & Downes. I had not explored small firms at all and actually got the impression while in law school that small firms were looked down upon.

When I met with my mentor, I learned that she didn’t know what field of law she was interested in during law school either. She cautioned me at the beginning of our meeting  “I don’t know if I can help you at all. I do a very specialized area of law- workers’ compensation law.”

My mentor talked to me about small law firm life and it sounded really appealing. My mentor has young children and goes to work 3 times a week, works from home the rest of the time, and has a flexible schedule.

After that, I became interested in small firm work but didn’t know how to get a small firm job.

Small firms do not go to job fairs or OCIs because they don’t have the resources to spend entire afternoons interviewing people so you have to know someone to get in.

I don’t know why I never thought of small firms early on in law school. A ten lawyer firm is the perfect number. It is like a small family.

KM: After that first meeting, is that when you decided you were interested in workers’ compensation law?

No. My mentor and I had not really talked about her work and her practice area at our first meeting because my mentor had dismissed workers’ compensation law as a niche practice area that no one knows about.

I made my way back to being interested in workers’ compensation law later. I did the Chicago Program and worked at the Department of Labor. I liked it but didn’t like everything that came with it like the litigation aspects and discovery. I did transactional work my 2L summer and didn’t like it so by 3L year, I thought there was nothing I liked.

Throughout 3L year, I kept applying to small firms, GC jobs, and government positions.

KM: How did you come to realize that you were interested in workers’ compensation law?

EL:  I first heard that it existed by talking with my mentor but didn’t get details on what it involved. A few months after my initial meeting with my mentor, I was at an alumni happy hour in Los Angeles and met three people who did workers’ compensation law including an administrative judge. I was very open at that happy hour about the fact that I did not know the type of law I wanted to practice. The judge encouraged me to consider workers’ compensation law if I didn’t have a job. He said it’s very lucrative and it’s easy.

That made me reach out to my mentor again, with the specific goal of speaking with her about workers’ compensation law.  (Our past conversations had focused more on the Chicago job market and small firm work in general.)

When I got to talking to my mentor about workers’ compensation law, she said she liked it because it is her own little world and an area of law that she could master. It is very specified and confined and doesn’t spill into other areas of law.

Once I expressed an interest in her area of law, my mentor took me to the Thompson Center in Chicago, where workers’ compensation proceedings take place, to see what she did and showed me the job postings on the 8th floor. I saw the informal nature of workers’ compensation law practice and really liked that. From that point on, she continued to send me job postings in the practice area.

I also took one of Professor Fick’s classes, which had a section on workers’ compensation law and I liked it.

KM: How did you end up at Ridge & Downes?

EL: Ridge & Downes is the firm that my mentor works for. I saw that they posted a job on symplicity but they wanted someone with experience.

While studying for the bar, my mentor emailed me. I was thinking of applying to the bridge to practice program at the time. My mentor asked me if I wanted to be hired as a law clerk at the firm until I passed the bar and then they could potentially hire me full-time.

I called Christine Holst in the CDO and asked what I should do- bridge to practice or the law clerk job at the firm? She encouraged me to accept the law clerk position because it could lead to permanent employment.

KM: What is workers’ compensation practice like?

EL: I like it because it is not super formal. Everything takes place at the Thompson Center in Chicago rather than in a courtroom. There is no discovery. It is all administrative law. I make decent money and have a flexible schedule. I don’t have kids yet but in the future, it is a really good position for mothers. This isn’t necessarily true of workers’ compensation practice, in particular, but for small firm life in general.

My firm represents a lot of police officers and firefighters in workers’ compensation disputes so I regularly interact with them and was at their bowling tournament last weekend. The daily hours are good. I am always home by 6 and I do not work weekends.

KM: Do you wish you worked at a big firm and made more money?

EL: A lot of people go to law school for the money and I originally did too but it took me a year to figure out that’s not what I wanted. I know people who make over 2-3 times my salary but they work unpredictable hours.

KM: How did you cultivate your relationship with your mentor? Did you just meet with her once and then she emailed you about the open law clerk position while you were studying for the bar?

No. I followed up with my mentor and met her several times. I met with her during 3L spring. I told her I was doing the Chicago program. She would regularly email me job postings. The workers’ compensation commission has a job board on the 8th floor at the Thompson center and she would email me jobs that were posted there.

I would email her with all kinds of things. Once, I just emailed her to say I didn’t have a job and needed encouragement.

KM: When you started your law clerk position at Ridge & Downes, did you stop applying for jobs?

EL: I wasn’t sure I would be able to work there after I passed the bar. It was a possibility but not a guarantee so I kept applying for jobs.

I did end up getting offered the job at Ridge & Downes and chose them because of the great work/life balance and other perks.

KM: You did a great job of building a good relationship with your mentor. Have you always been this good at networking?

EL: I dreaded networking with a passion. I suck at networking but I think that’s okay. It’s not ideal but I’m still alive and employed.

I tried to network throughout law school but not every networking meeting felt super helpful. When reaching out to lawyers in the past, I was used to being disregarded for my GPA. It took me a while to find a lawyer I really connected with.

KM: What is your day to day life as a workers’ compensation attorney like?

EL: In the mornings, I go to the Thompson center for status calls before an arbitrator. (We go before an arbitrator, rather than a judge, for status calls, trials, and pre-trials.) If we need to appeal a decision, we appeal it to a commission. If you appeal the commission’s decision, then you go to the Daley Center in actual court and then on to the Illinois supreme court. The Illinois supreme court only hears one workers’ compensation case per year so cases generally do not make it that far.

So far, I have only worked at the arbitrator level. I have my first trial coming up next month. I have sat it on a lot of trials and I am getting good experience. Workers’ compensation law is all done in a small, informal setting. I thought the Daley center was really intimidating.

Workers’ compensation law is not intimidating. Everyone knows each other so there is not a lot of animosity.

The practice area has a lot of civility because you know the practice is small and will see the same attorneys again. A defense attorney will even help me out and say “you might want this for your case.” People help each other. Opposing counsel are always willing to accommodate each other’s schedules.

This same level of civility does not exist for the personal injury lawyers at my firm.

On a given day, I multi task and juggle things because I have to answer client calls, write briefs and decisions, and manage client billing and medical records. I also negotiate medical and health bills. Many cases settle. I write many demand letters. I negotiate with and touch base with opposing counsel.

KM: Who are your clients?

EL: I represent people who are hurt at work. I mostly represent union workers such as teachers, police, machinists, and fire fighters.

Every workplace has workers’ compensation insurance so when you get hurt like say you fall down the stairs, you tell your employer and they tell their workers’ compensation insurance company. They then assign you a claim number and you go through medical treatment. Then, you get an attorney and your attorney deals directly with the employer’s insurance company. The system is made so people don’t sue their employers.

KM: How do workers’ compensation attorneys get paid?

EL: Attorneys get 20% of what the client gets in the state of Illinois.

KM: What is the cycle of a case like?

EL: We file a claim with the commission and they assign us an arbitrator. Every 3 months, you can decide that you want to go to the commission. You can have a pre-trial where the arbitrator tells you what they would rule. You can file a motion if the workers’ compensation insurance is not paying the  bills. You have to go before an arbitrator when the case is three years old and then tell them where the case is at. Some defense attorneys make you go to trial before you get any money.

There is no discovery. You just have the medical records and the client’s testimony at trial.

At the conclusion of it, I write post-trial briefs, which is the proposed decision we would like for the arbitrator to issue.

I have 40-50 cases now.

KM: How big is your firm? Does everyone do workers’ compensation law there?

EL: There are 10 lawyers at my firm. 2 are personal injury/FELA attorneys (Federal Employers Liability Act, a statute that protects and compensates railroad workers injured on the job.) The other 8 lawyers are workers’ compensation attorneys. The named Partner, Downes, is a FELA guy. The other named Partner, Ridge,  is a workers’ compensation attorney.

I am lucky that I have a really good boss.

KM: Does your firm take summer interns?

EL: We do. We have hired all of our interns for this summer but going forward, if students are interested, have them email me. We pay our summer interns. I never thought to seek a small firm internship when I was in law school but our interns will get great experience.

KM: You got self described “bad grades” in law school. What advice do you have for students who feel that they are in the same boat?

There’s a point you’re at where your grades aren’t good but you still want to be a lawyer and what do you do? I would tell students in that position to broaden their horizons.

Think of areas of law that no one else in your class would think about and see if you would be interested. If you see students routinely turning up their noses at a certain area of law, that is a sign you should look into that area of law more.  I was really strategic in my job search. For instance, I chose Chicago because it is too hard to get a job in Los Angeles.

As I was figuring out that I wanted to be in a small firm, I learned that many small firms don’t hire straight out of law school unless you intern there and they know who you are. When would I have had a time to talk to small firm lawyers in Los Angeles? But the Chicago program is available and close to South Bend and taking part in that makes it possible to network actively in Chicago for an entire semester.

KM: What advice do you have for students and particularly for 3Ls, who are struggling in their job searches?

EL: You can’t say you want a job and then say “no” to every option presented to you. Don’t be close minded and refuse to open yourself up to public interest or government.

Definitely look outside what Symplicity and OCI has to offer. Networking is a pain but you have to keep putting yourself out there. You can have 50 bad runs but it is that 1 good run after those 50 bad runs that can get you where you want. What’s the worst that can happen? The people you meet at a networking event will probably never see you again unless you put in an effort to see them again so don’t be afraid of mistakes or embarrassing encounters.

If you hate being at a networking event, send emails for informational interviews with attorneys one-on-one. Sure you may get 0 responses from sending your first 50 emails, but keep trying and you will get a response. I would also say it’s okay if you don’t know what you want to do your 3L year (even though it would be helpful).

Be active and network. The Asian American Bar Association has a mentorship program. I joined that. Take advantage of networking opportunities that are available to you.

Go to networking events, especially Notre Dame alumni events. Even if you meet someone at a networking event that cannot help you find a job, they might give you a really useful idea like the administrative law judge in Los Angeles gave to me. You can just say you don’t know what you want to do with your career at networking events and be open about it. Don’t feel obligated to make something up.

Do the CDO mentorship program and set three month reminders. Every 3 months, email your mentor. Even if I had nothing to say to her, I knew I needed to meet up with my mentor and it paid off.

KM: How did you study for the bar?

EL: I took it really seriously. I spent hours doing it a day. I invested in a bar preparation course and bought flash cards to use while studying. I would read my flash cards on the elliptical machine while working out. I would study with friends during the day.

I took studying for the bar really seriously and put hours in and that is how I passed the first time around.

If you want to speak with Eileen, she would be happy to talk to any Notre Dame student. Email me and I will put you in touch.

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