Biglaw, Job Searches, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Advice From A Real Expert on Choosing a Small Firm

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Size Matters, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

As discussed previously, Steven Harper threw down the gauntlet when it comes to top law schools focusing all their recruiting efforts on Biglaw placements. And the woman who reads my tea leaves said that small law firms are becoming the new black. But you do not need to take their word for it. I have it from on high (i.e., from someone at Harvard Law School) that small law firms might merit the attention of the top of the U.S. News law school hierarchy.

I decided to test my working hypothesis — that graduates from top schools are considering small firms for their post-graduate employment — on the head of the Office of Career Services at HLS, Assistant Dean Mark Weber….

According to Weber, there has been no dramatic uptick in the number of 3Ls considering small law firms. As has been true for many years, the majority of HLS graduates who work for law firms after graduation are still going to Biglaw. Unsurprisingly, HLS graduates did not feel the economic downturn in the same way as other recent law school graduates.

There is, however, a subtle change in the air. While HLS graduates are not flocking to small law firms, they have begun to include small law firms in the discussion of where to work after school.

Aha, I was right!

Other than vindicating my small-firm expertise (well, at least in my mind), Mark Weber offered some words of wisdom on the benefits of small-firm practice:

1. Large law firms do not have the monopoly on smart people.

With some research, individuals considering small law firms can locate “hidden gems” throughout the country. These are firms with sophisticated work, where the associates get meaningful experience from day one, and where partners have an interest in developing young attorneys. Indeed, many small firms are spun off from Biglaw and can be great places to practice.

2. Know yourself.

While small law firms can be great for some people, they are not right for everyone. If you are an individual with an entrepreneurial nature who would like to represent smaller companies and would enjoy being given significant responsibility from the beginning, then working for a small firm could be a great choice for you. If you are looking for a formalized training process, small law firms may not be for you. Also, make sure you are interested in the type of law that the small firm practices and be prepared to make less money than Biglaw. As with everything in life (and in law), there are pluses and minuses to working at small firms.

Choose wisely.

3. Know the firm.

Some small law firms do not hire recent graduates, preferring instead to hire laterally. Do your research.

4. Watch out for red flags.

Because some small law firms may be dependent on one or two rainmakers, consider whether the firm can continue if that person/persons were to leave. To that end, try to understand the business model and make an assessment of the long-term viability of the firm. Also, make sure you get along with the attorneys at the firm because odds are you will be required to work with all or many of them.

5. Think long term.

One potential draw back to working for a small firm is that the firm may not have a national presence. If you think you may be moving to a different state in the near future, it may be more difficult to find a new job if you work at a firm that does not have the national recognition of Biglaw. That said, often the second job one gets will depend on what you have done (not necessarily where you have worked) and so working in a small firm does not foreclose the ability to relocate. But, it is a consideration.

In summary, everyone should consider (not necessarily chose) small law firms — as well as all other employment options — when formulating a job search. I told you so!

Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small law firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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