Small Law Firms

Caveat Small Firm Hopeful: Socially Inept Need Not Apply

My former practice at a small law firm was primarily commercial and residential real estate development. The week after my bar results came in, my boss gave me a stack of documents to read through and let me sit in on a couple of closings. I watched, listened and pretended to take notes. Then one morning he popped his head into my office.

“Why don’t you take the ten o’clock?” It was more of a command than a question, and I responded by nodding and breaking into a sweat. An hour and a half later, I thanked the parties for their patience, staggered back to my office, and began thinking about my career choice. My boss said something supportive but unconvincing, like “it’ll take a few times before you find your rhythm.”

That was my first of many direct experiences with the gap between the theory and the practice of law. This gap, which I filled mostly with sweat, is the subject of a nice post by Bill MacDonald that I stumbled into over the weekend. Specifically, he writes about three aspects of law practice that receive little, if any, attention in law school.

One of his points in particular struck a chord with me — and, given its importance to making money as a small firm lawyer, it deserves some coverage here…

MacDonald speculates as follows:

If Harper Lee had written a few scenes in which Atticus Finch had to schmooze at a local business lunch and make a PowerPoint presentation to show why he was, in fact, the best person to defend Tom Robinson, there would probably be 25% fewer lawyers in the U.S.A. today.

His point is that lawyers go to school because the law fascinates them (a gross oversimplification and in many cases not true, but for our purposes — and his — ultimately unimportant). Lawyers are not marketing gurus (with the exception of people like Susan Cartier Liebel, Adrian Dayton, and others), and many of them don’t want to spend their time — and by association their money — selling their practice. But marketing isn’t optional for small firm practitioners; it’s a necessity, and it’s something those of you headed in that direction must be fully prepared to embrace.

Let me repeat that. You will not survive in a small firm environment if you are not a social creature. This is a big reason small firms generally place less of an emphasis on grades than Biglaw. Upon hiring, you are, almost immediately, an important face of the firm. Small firms need someone who can have a conversation with clients and, more importantly, potential clients, without the need to intersperse Latin or cite legal opinions. To some of you, this need will sound so basic as to not even merit a discussion. To that I say, maybe you’ve been out of law school too long.

Many of the kids in my graduating class, though quite intelligent, were socially inept. (Let me also quickly point out that I’m talking about “business social,” not about your ability to pick up someone at a bar. The presence of one is a decent indicator of the other, but there’s not always an overlap.) Lest you think I’m being overly harsh or am misremembering my time in law school, I received the email below from a current student at a top school that highlights the issue rather well. In discussing arguments in favor of opening a practice with some classmates, she mentioned this:

[W]e are three extremely social, not-awkward people. In other professions this would not make us unique. In law school, we are something close to freaks of nature. I think this will serve us well as we network and seek to find a place in our new hometown.

Bingo. If you need more evidence of the social ineptitude of law students, please see pretty much any story ever written at this site about the individual efforts of summer associates (such as this post by Kashmir Hill). This lack of social aptitude is a problem — and, getting back to MacDonald’s point, law school doesn’t help.

Even with the more recent efforts toward expanding curricula to include more clinics, externships and the like, law school will not equip you with the invaluable practical skill of being “business social.” Arguably your three years actually train you to be the exact opposite of the social maven that success at a small firm requires. Even during the few hours a day that your nose isn’t buried in a casebook or listening to a lecture, your social skills are being stunted by how the cliquish, high school-esque environment limits your interactions to all but a handful of your classmates. The time leftover is likely spent drinking yourself into a stupor blowing off steam at a bar, which, as I mentioned, doesn’t really count.

Perhaps if you’re the only lawyer in town you can afford to be a socially inept recluse. But if there’s any competition, you’d better (a) be a House-like exception (i.e., so damn good people will still bring you cases despite your complete disregard for social norms), or (b) be prepared to be social and actively seek out interactions — and I mean face-to-face interaction, not just tweeting — with potential clients on a regular basis. If you’re not one or the other, you might want to think again before seeking out the small firm life.

On a scheduling note, I’m still reviewing the results of the salary survey from last week, and I hope to have some information up here for Thursday’s post. Thanks to all who participated!

Please email me with your questions and comments. I’m also on Twitter @LittleRichardJD.

So what does law school not teach you? [L4L Blog]

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of small law firms

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