The Case for Working at A Small or Mid-sized Firm

This is a guest blog post by Ed D’Arcy.

Many students at NDLS yearn for the opportunity to work for large law firms like those that regularly participate in OCI and OCIPs in cities like New York and Dallas.  For some, substantial debt makes the prospect of earning up to $190,000 a year to start quite appealing since repayment schedules can be overwhelming.  For those fortunate not to be saddled with the crushing weight of debt, working for a large prestigious law firm in a market like New York, Chicago or D.C. is the stuff dreams are made of.

Unfortunately, those prestigious large law firms have minimum GPA requirements which make the employment process highly selective, absent some extraordinary networking efforts. If you don’t qualify or are not selected for an interview with a large law firm due to GPA, your knee-jerk reaction might be that your life is ruined and law school has been a monumental waste. That’s not true! Contrary to this notion, there are a number of reasons why a small to mid-size firm may suit the needs of a student far better than a large law firm. These reasons include the following:

BETTER WORK-LIFE BALANCE

The starting salary at the largest law firms for the most recent graduating class of students was a hefty $190,000. The primary reason for this high figure is quite simple: the number of billable hours required for new associates. Frankly, it is not unusual for new associates at large law firms to work in excess of 65-70 hours per week in order to meet the required minimum. In addition, the new associate must always be available on call from partners and senior associates. These long hours can have a significant impact on the work-life balance of a young attorney.

Obviously, students attending law school are no strangers to hard work. Their work ethic often begins during the high school years where they started achieving the highest grades possible to get into a good college or university; continued on during their undergraduate years to further enable law school admission; then even further continued on during law school to obtain the best grades possible for a great job. Indeed, the idea of continuing to work hard (and meeting a large law firm’s billable hour requirements) after graduation in order to earn a significant starting salary does not deter but actually motivates many students. For them, the sacrifice of working long hours 6 days a week for the first few years of practice will be well worth the path to future partnership.

Although it may not deter a segment of the student population, other students feel differently about the prospect of working long hours and ultimately sacrificing their work-life balance after graduation. Whether due to family considerations or just behind tired of exerting themselves for long stretches over the course of many years, some students are not willing to invest the long hours necessary to succeed in a large firm. Under these circumstances, a small to mid-size firm suits their needs since these firms have lower billable hour requirements than their large counterparts which means fewer hours and fewer weekends spent in the office. Clearly, there will be occasions when late nights and/or weekend work is necessary such as a case on trial but the smaller firms don’t emphasize income as much as large law firms. In fact, many of the small to mid-size firms were started by partners at large law firms who grew tired of the long hours and wanted greater work-life balance themselves.

Despite the significant difference in starting salaries, an associate position at a small to mid-size firm offers the benefit of new attorneys finally enjoying the fruits of their labor and working fewer hours than new associates at the large law firms.

GREATER RESPONSIBILITY AND EXPERIENCE

In addition to better work-life balance, small to mid-size firms offer the opportunity for new associates to acquire greater responsibility and experience than those beginning their careers in large law firms. I’ll use my own experience to illustrate the differences.

When I graduated from law school, I was married with a 2 year old daughter so work-life balance was a priority. As a result, I joined a small civil litigation firm with 15 attorneys in downtown Chicago.  I actually began working for them around 2 weeks before I was licensed.

The day I was sworn in, I attended the ceremony at 10:00 a.m., had lunch with my parents, wife, and daughter, and was attending the deposition of a surviving spouse on a wrongful death case at 2:00 p.m. with 13 other attorneys that afternoon. After being thoroughly prepped for the deposition by my assigned partner the day before, I actually asked a series of questions before all those present while the ink on my license was not yet dry.

By the time I reached the one-year anniversary with the firm, I had around 25 cases assigned solely to me and second-chaired a construction case with one of the name partners only six months later. After only four years, I left the small firm and joined a 100+ attorney civil litigation firm who was seeking an experienced litigator with 7 – 10 years of experience. Based upon the criteria established by the 100+ firm, I had the experience of a litigator with 7 – 10 years of experience after only four years of practice with the smaller firm.

The small to mid-size firms occasionally hire new associates due to lateral moves, retirement, new clients, etc. When a small to mid-size firm has such an opening, it typically hires only one new associate at a time and cannot afford to wait years until the new associate is capable of arguing motions, taking depositions, drafting briefs, or managing a case without strict supervision. Whether due to a lateral move, retirement, or new clients, a new associate in a small to mid-size firm is a vital addition who will begin to shoulder responsibility (as I did) shortly after joining the firm.

Contrary to small and mid-size organizations, large law firms usually have many new associates beginning work for them around the same time and delegate work by assignment for a length of time. Unlike the small to mid-size firms, there is typically little or no client contact and no file management for several years.  As a result, responsibility (and the ensuing experience which results) comes in small doses compared to the smaller firms.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the old saying “Money can’t buy happiness”.  Applying this to the legal field, a new associate position with a small to mid-size firm can be far more challenging, stimulating and, enjoyable due to the enhanced responsibility delegated by the partners, despite any differences in the starting salary.

BETTER TRAINING

As noted above, large law firms typically hire a number of new associates who graduate at the same time. Since they graduated at the same time, the new associates are generally treated the same with assignments distributed by their managing attorney. The managing attorney is probably an equity partner who has his own clients, his own matters, and his own billable hours to balance when dealing with new young associates. Based upon the number of new associates and the equity partner’s own obligations, the time actually spent between an individual new associate and their assigned equity partner at a large law firm may be quite limited.

Barring some extraordinary summer or experiential experience, a new associate does not have much knowledge about the actual practice of law in a given field. As a result, a new associate will typically have various questions which arise during the course of their work.  Based upon their busy schedules, a new associate in a large law firm can be reluctant to consult an equity partner or senior associate with various questions for fear of bothering them or being considered incapable of doing the job. This rational fear is based upon being compared to other new associates hired at the same time who may not have the same number of questions.

Contrary to large law firms, small to mid-size firms typically hire only one associate at a time. Since the sole associate has no competition from members of a peer group, they do not have the fear of being compared adversely to their peers. Without the competition and fear of being considered either too slow, too dumb, or not competent, the associate is far more comfortable approaching a partner or senior associate in the smaller firm with questions. This freedom allows a more open exchange of information between the new associate and the partners or senior associates.

A small to mid-size firm does not typically provide the partners or senior associates with the same compensation or require the same number of billable hours from them as in the large firms. The small to mid-size firm may also have fewer committees, fewer administrative obligations and fewer commitments for their partners and senior associates than in their larger counterparts. Given the smaller compensation, lower billable hours, and/or fewer commitments, the partners and senior associates in small to mid-size firms have more freedom and flexibility with their time to engage with a new associate, rather than an army of new young attorneys. This additional time available to partners and senior associates means additional time to discuss legal matters or additional time for training.

Frankly, the additional training provided to young associates in small and mid-size firms is required since the new associate in a smaller firm will be given more responsibility than those in a large firm. From the associate’s perspective, there is a comfort level with being able to approach and question partners and senior associates whenever necessary without regards to how it may appear to a peer group.

MORE COLLEGIAL

This aspect practically goes without saying. In fact, many small and mid-size firms were actually started by equity partners who split off from larger firms after tiring of the pressure of the billable hours and/or other political aspects inherent in large firms. Since the partners and senior associates have more time and more flexibility to spend with young new attorneys, they can actually develop a relationship similar to teacher-student, rather than employer-employee. To this day, one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my career was give notice to my assigned partner at the small firm I started out with since I was making a lateral move to the larger litigation firm. The partner was like a father to me and I sensed the disappointment but understanding in his voice which I recall even today.

During my career, I worked as a partner in various firms including the 100+ civil litigation firm and several smaller firms thereafter. Without exception, the smaller the firm, the closer I grew to the other attorneys and staff which included going to lunch, having a drink after work, playing golf together, and even socializing with spouses on the weekends. The reason is obvious since the primary goal of a smaller firm is not to earn as much money as humanely possible but to create an environment where you enjoy going to work every day and enjoy the people you’re working with. If you enjoy going to work every day and enjoy the people you’re working with, time passes far more quickly than if you’re making a ton of money but unhappy with the work or the people you work with.

CONCLUSION

Make no mistake, we are very proud to invite the top law firms in the country to recruit at Notre Dame Law School and to graduate students who begin their careers in those firms. I would never discourage a student from following their dream and pursuing a position with a large law firm. Understand that the sole purpose of this blog post is to provide consolation to those who don’t land big firm jobs. For those students and for the reasons stated above, a job starting out in a smaller firm may prove even more satisfying than had they began their career in a large firm.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career with a small or mid-sized firm, reach out to the CDO. We’re here to help!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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