Job Searches, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Desperately Seeking Susan

Last week, I received an email from a recent graduate who is in the midst of a small firm job search. She is having trouble focusing her search because there are so many small law firms and so few resources (or so she thought) about how to find all the various firms. She wrote:

Every lawyer I speak to, whether a friend, in an interview, or informational interview, has an inconsistent network. The one small firm lawyer I know has referred me to solo practitioners and Biglaw attorneys, but not other small firms. Career services offices mainly work with big firms, not too many small firms. There are few small firm positions posted on job boards, but I know that most small firms fill open positions by word of mouth.

She asked me where to look to find and network with attorneys at the many small firms in her city. She signed it “Seeking Small Firm.” I decided that her nom de plume was so awesome, I had to help.

Find out what I told her after the jump….

To me, the hardest decision for a new lawyer undergoing a job search is to determine what type of environment is right for the newbie. By this, I mean whether you want to work at Biglaw, a small firm, a public interest organization, a government organization, etc. Seeking had made that important decision, and decided that she wanted to work at a small firm. So, for her, the search process can be completed in six simple steps (in the sense that any job search these days is “simple”).

Step 1: Create Your Map

The first step in any small firm search is to map out your potential target firms. The easiest way to do this is to use Do a search for firms (a) in your desired location, and (b) of your desired firm size. The options for small firms include firms of 1, 2-9, 10-24, and 24-49 attorneys. This will give you a list of all of the small firms in your area. If possible, narrow down the size. For instance, perhaps you do not wish to work with a solo practitioner, or perhaps you think 24-49 is too big. Then, take the (potentially) reduced list and start an Excel spreadsheet. This exercise is not for the faint of heart, however. In Chicago, for example, your target map may be 629 firms (if you consider 1-49).

Step 2: Do Your Due Diligence

After you have identified all of the small firms in your area, you should research those firms to determine which are most appealing. Go to the websites and look at the attorneys, the clients, the practice areas, etc. If you still have your Lexis password from law school (or a friend does), search through published cases for certain attorneys or law firms. Look at published lists that rank small firms. And, to be safe, search your local ARDC for complaints. Ask your career center, your friends, headhunters, or anyone who may be knowledgeable about small firms. Then, narrow down your list accordingly.

Step 3: Prioritize

The point of this exercise is to get a job. So, to maximize your odds, prioritize the firms on your target list where you stand the best shot of getting an interview (informational or real). How? Determine any of the firms with attorneys in your network. Think as broadly as possible when making this determination: if someone went to your college/law school/high school/camp/gym/church etc., that person is in your network. Do not forget to mine the networks of everyone you know, whether or not the people are lawyers. Remember, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are you friends during step 3. Place all of the firms that you identify through this step at the top of your list. Do not eliminate the other firms, just give them lower priority.

Step 4: Reach Out

At this point, you have perfected your list of target firms. Now it is time to put the list to work for you. This means you should go through your list and set up phone calls, coffees, or informational interviews (take whatever you can get). After you get through the firms where you have a connection, you should still reach out to the other firms on your list. Send an email to the hiring partner, managing partner, or someone with some decision making power, and ask for an informational interview. The worst he/she can say is no (or simply not respond). This is the time to be fearless (or shameless, either works).

Want more advice on this step? Check out Jay’s tips for getting an informational interview.

If you are unsure what to do during the conversation, I was given the following checklist for an informational interview:

A. Give a two-minute introduction (who are you, why did you ask to talk).
B. Ask what the person does (“What is a typical day at X firm like?”).
C. Ask what the person likes most/least about practicing at X firm (or in a small firm in general).
D. Ask how the person got started (either at the firm, or in the small firm world in general).
E. Close by asking the person for any advice or referrals (again, either to people in the firm, or to other small-firm lawyers generally).

Step 5: Follow Up

I learned this the hard way. Even an informational interview (or coffee or phone call) merits a thank you. So, send a thank you note. It is a good way to stay on that person’s radar. And, take excellent notes of your conversation so that if you come across any article or hear about a certain relevant topic, you can re-contact the person.

Step 6: Be Patient and Persistent

Searching for a job sucks. The reason is that a job search is a job in and of itself, so treat it accordingly. And, let’s be honest, what else do you have to do since you have no job? It is not like it is summer and there are other things you would rather do. I hope that was inspirational.

If you do these steps consistently, you should find a job. It likely will take time, but you have conducted a broad and exhaustive job search, so something will come up.

In the meantime, you should make sure to respond to job posts for new lawyers. Local law publications have the most small firm job postings, but the national websites often list small firm jobs as well. Also, use your free time to develop some skills. Volunteer with a legal non-profit or consider applying for a post-graduate fellowship. Small firms tend to like attorneys with experience, so doing this can only improve your candidacy. And work on continuing to grow your small firm network. For instance, most state bars have a small firm chapter, as does the ABA. It cannot hurt to go to a lunch or a CLE (although most activities are done for the summer, but think about this in the fall).

Good luck, and please feel free to contact me with any of your other small firm advice needs. Please note, I specialize in questions about small firm holiday parties and 80s sitcoms, but I will give your question my best shot.

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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