Associate Advice, Job Searches, Labor / Employment, Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: You Know What Kind of Law You Want to Practice. Now What?

I’m under the impression that many of our readers are looking for a new job, or at least thinking about it. Some of you are still in law school and haven’t lined something up yet. Others have been laid off by a firm and are trying to find a replacement gig. Still others are unhappy in their current situations, and are contemplating something better. But how many of you know what you’re looking for?

I mentioned earlier that I’ve given a lot of informational interviews in the past. I do believe that it’s the most effective and most overlooked job-search tool going. But I’m often struck by how many people I meet — especially law students — who already know what type of law they want to practice. I certainly didn’t when I was in school; I became an employment lawyer because an employment-law firm offered me a job. I marvel at 1Ls and 2Ls who already know what type of lawyer they want to be when they grow up.

Knowing this has its benefits: it can help you direct your career path. But it has its disadvantages, too. It can seriously limit your job opportunities.

Here’s how to handle that problem.…

Many interviewees asked to meet with me because they had already determined that they were interested in practicing employment law. That’s great, I’d tell them. It’s a fun area to practice in. It’s not exactly rocket science, and you can get a handle on the field in just a few years of practice with a small firm. The cases are never boring. Even though you might get the same type of matter over and over, the cases themselves are unique because of the varying personalities and corporate cultures involved. It’s soap-opera stuff: important to the players, but no one dies or goes to prison or loses their children.

But this foreknowledge poses a problem for these wannabe employment lawyers: there are only so many employment-law jobs. (I’m writing about employment law, of course, because that’s all I did. But these observations hold for many other practice areas, too.)

In Boston, management-side employment-law jobs were to be found in three places:

  1. Biglaw employment departments
  2. National employment firms
  3. Boutiques

In Boston, there are about 20 large or large-ish firms with employment departments. (In fact, many of them have downgraded them from full departments to mere practice groups. And other firms have all but abandoned the field.) These departments have between five and maybe 15 employment-law billets, with maybe half of them at the partner level. That means they’re likely to have only a small number of openings at any given time. What is more, the kind of candidates who need to use informational interviews as a job-search technique are more likely to be like I was: unemployable by a Biglaw firm.

Then there are the national labor-and-employment firms. There are maybe five or six in the whole country, and a couple of them haven’t made it to Boston. They tend to have about the same number of spots as the general Biglaw firms, and they tend to be a bit more open-minded about candidates.

Then there are the six or eight management boutiques (actually, one fewer now).They’ll hire just about anyone (like me) (I keed, I keed), but they are much less likely to have openings.

So with that depressing tally, what’s an aspiring employment lawyer supposed to do?

Look for a job in a similar-enough field. What I would tell people looking to bust into employment law is that they should also look for positions in civil litigation, especially business litigation. A young lawyer who starts out in a business-litigation firm is going to learn the basic litigation skills that will prove useful to a future employment-law career. If you’re at a small firm that occasionally gets employment-related cases, raise your hand to get involved whenever one comes up. Do whatever you can to make people at your general-practice firm think of you when an employment case comes along.

This works. I have a colleague who was working at a mid-sized trial-practice firm that made a big deal out of the fact that they had no practice-area specialties — just trial work. But every time an employment case came through the door, this guy made sure he got assigned to it. Pretty soon, he was known as the employment-law guy in a firm with no practice areas. After a while, he was able to go to a firm with an actual employment practice, and he was able to take a sizable book of business with him.

It can work in other practice areas, too. If you want a corporate-law job, consider a bankruptcy position. If you’d like to be doing elder law, widen your search to include family-law firms. And so on.

So, sure, keep looking for the employment-law (or whatever) job, and follow up on every opening you hear about. But until one comes along, broaden your search to include related areas. Don’t worry that you’ll be pigeonholing yourself. You’ll have plenty of time to specialize in the area you want down the road.


Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at js@shepherdlawgroup.com.

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