Welcome back to Above the Law’s coverage of small law firm practice. I was pleased with the comments and emails I received in response to Tuesday’s opening volley. After debating on the subject matter for today’s post, I decided that since Small Law attorneys are quite comfortable, often by necessity, with diving right into the deep end of things, let’s get down to brass tacks: Are there actually jobs at small law firms and, if so, what should you consider before making the switch?
One was a complaint about how difficult it is to attract new lawyers to join law firms in rural areas. The other was the lawyer’s prediction that in the next ten years, half the lawyers in her quarter of the state were going to retire from the practice of law.
Cooperstein follows up with his guess that this problem — or wondrous happenstance, depending on what side of the fence you find yourself — probably isn’t unique to the Gopher State. He speaks the truth. I spent my Small Law years at a firm with 20 to 25 lawyers, most of whom will retire in the next five years. In speaking with my former partners and associates, I’m told the same is true for many of their contemporaries in surrounding counties.
So what do you do if you want to be one of their replacements?
First, realize that there’s often a large divide between what small law firms want and what they can reasonably afford. My former employer, located an hour from Atlanta, wanted an already licensed attorney, from the top third of his or her class, with polished social skills and a long-term desire to practice in rural Georgia. They were offering $65k plus medical benefits. How many 25-year-olds coming out of law school in that position would take that offer over the bright lights of Biglaw? Very few, I’d guess.
Beyond that, are there Biglaw attorneys willing to accept such a drastic downsizing in compensation? (At least at the associate level — as we mentioned previously, there can be financial benefits to striking out on your own as a partner.) Perhaps, but anyone looking to make the jump must be sure that his or her priorities are compatible with what Small Law has to offer. (We will, of course, be delving into exactly what those offerings are right here in the weeks ahead.)
When you choose a small law firm, you’re not just choosing a paycheck like you might in Biglaw. You’re choosing a lifestyle, and that decision should not be made without an honest accounting of your personal priorities.
Small Law, at least in the limited “rural law” sense in which I’m discussing it in this post, is generally made up of lawyers who grew up in a small town and have simply come back home (or migrated to its equivalent). This was exactly the case in my experience. Aside from me, all the other associates at my former firm fit that bill. They were the sons (we only had one woman at the time) of Small Town, U.S.A., if not of the firm’s partners. These newly-minted lawyers were already quite accustomed to what country folks call “charm” and what Cooperstein refers to as “cultural isolation” (although, as Andrea Welker over at Ms. J.D. mentions, even coming back home to Small Law takes some readjustment). Due to that familiarity, their priorities were generally much more aligned with the lifestyle than was my own.
I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, which experience now tells me is much closer to city living than rural living. Even without that knowledge, I was cognizant of the gamble I was taking at the time by accepting my former employer’s offer. After a week of internal debate, I called the managing partner to accept. Yes, I would be spurning higher-paying jobs, but the idea of the so-called simple life appealed to me. Four-minute commute? Check. Weekends free? Check. Plus it’s a good firm, with a good reputation in the area. In the end, though, I underestimated the effect that the cultural isolation would have on my day-to-day life.
I’m a man of simple needs and wants, which is partly why I believed a small firm could provide the personal and professional sustenance I required. In the end, it didn’t provide me enough of either, though for the record, I’m quite sure Biglaw would not have fit the bill either. In that vein, I want to be clear that, although I walked away from Small Law, I don’t consider it somehow less of an existence than its Biglaw equivalent (or whatever it is I’m after). It’s just different — and it failed to align with my priorities.
Here’s a small but illustrative example: I’m a runner, and the town where I practiced had nowhere to buy running shoes (yes, I know about Zappos). Also, small towns don’t tend to have side streets. There are main streets and there are private farm roads, neither of which are conducive to a relaxing run. These may seem like trivial matters to you, but my point is that you should consider what priorities you have that may be unexpectedly incompatible with a Small Law life.
In time, this column will cover the quantitative aspects of Small Law — e.g., salaries, benefits, hours — to give students and seekers of change a more complete picture of what to expect. In my opinion, however, the larger issue that one must confront in choosing such a life is whether it aligns with your priorities (including those beyond a better salary-to-hours ratio).
What is your hometown small law firm asking for by the way of qualifications? What fears do you have about your small law firm life? Keep the emails coming, to email@example.com. I’m reading and digesting each with an eye toward future columns.
It’s nice to know you’re out there, Small Law. Have a great weekend on the lake, at the beach, in the yard, or wherever else you’re not working because you had the nerve to walk away from Biglaw.
Earlier: Small Law Comes to Above the Law