Biglaw, Books, Job Searches, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Seriously, Size Matters

We are almost three months into my one-woman quest to convince the world (or at least ATL readers) that bigger is not always better. Isn’t that why Jamie Oliver is moonlighting as a lunch lady? Unfortunately, some people still are not convinced. So I called in an expert, Steven Harper (previously featured here).

Harper, a Kirkland & Ellis partner turned novelist, has been studying and writing about attorney unhappiness and Biglaw for some time. He also teaches a class to undergraduates at Northwestern University entitled “American Lawyers – Demystifying the Profession.” The class, which is now in its fourth year, offers undergrads “ten weeks of reality therapy” about what it means to be a lawyer. Although most of the students end up going on to law school, at least they are better informed.

What wisdom does Harper impart to his young charges?

Harper tries to isolate the reasons why Biglaw associates are unhappy. One reason may be the billable hour. Indeed, the billable hour may be dying, but according to Harper, it’s taking Biglaw associates down with it. Rather than a measure of productivity, the billable hour should be looked at as a “misery index,” particularly for attorneys billing more than 2,000 hours a year. And, after all that work, only a fraction of associates will make it to partner in Biglaw. Who wouldn’t be unhappy?

Another reason for lawyer unhappiness is that very few attorneys truly chose Biglaw. To the contrary, many young people “chose” to go to law school by default, without really knowing what it means to be a practicing lawyer. Once at law school, inertia (and law school career services) pushes them to Biglaw.

Given all this, who could still believe Biglaw is better? Well, many readers of Above the Law. According to Harper, this assumption will hold true for the majority of lawyers so long as the best and the brightest are attracted to Biglaw. But a firm is only as good as its people — so if talented lawyers go to small law firms, then maybe we can all agree that size matters.

This is all great, but how do small firms attract the best and the brightest? Information. Biglaw may mean a big paycheck, but there are many non-economic costs to working there (e.g., sacrificing your life). Small firms should educate potential applicants on their non-economic benefits. In the words of that ghost in the cornfields, “if you build it, they will come.”

So, I guess if I am going to prove that size matters, I am going to need some help from good small firms. What advantages do you offer to talented attorneys? And I am going to need help from law school career services officers. What options are there for promising graduates other than Biglaw?

Class dismissed.

To hear more about what Harper has to say about Biglaw, check out his blog or read his newest novel, The Partnership (affiliate link).

When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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