Biglaw, Boutique Law Firms, Job Searches, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Growing Pains

Everyone knows how challenging it can be for lawyers to find satisfying work in today’s economy. Employers who are looking to hire associate attorneys seem to have the upper hand because there are so many qualified candidates available.

Even with an abundance of candidates, however, hiring associates and support staff can be particularly challenging for small and boutique law firms. Although Biglaw firms are notoriously selective, in some ways they are actually less selective than their smaller counterparts.

Unfortunately for most, and fortunately for some, larger firms’ hiring is largely focused on the candidate’s objective credentials. Every firm pays lip service to its unique culture, but for junior associates your resume is often more important than your personality.

In a small or boutique firm, personality and “fit” are more important than they are in Biglaw. A small firm is more likely to have a distinct firm culture that is a reflection of its partners. The more owners, the more diffuse the personalities and culture. If nothing else, in a smaller environment you are going to be working in closer physical proximity to the other employees.

So, how can small firms find new associates who fit best?

The beginning and intermediate skill sets needed in a small or boutique law firm also are usually different than those needed in bigger shops. One true small law firm stereotype is that junior associates are expected to do more substantial work, sooner. A junior associate in a small firm can’t hide on a large team doing document review.

The smaller the firm, the greater the relative importance of each associate. An AmLaw 100 firm can afford to make some hiring mistakes without necessarily hurting its bottom line. Especially for a small or boutique firm, finding the perfect candidate can be critical because any bad hire can have a significant effect.

But how does a small firm locate that perfect candidate? Even with large numbers of attorneys looking for work, the process is harder than you might think. One way is to post ads on law school job boards, or on Above the Law, or on Craigslist. A Craigslist ad only costs $75 and most reasonable positions will generate a flood of responses. That advantage, however, is also the primary downside. Reviewing resumes, not to mention scheduling and conducting interviews, can be very time consuming.

An alternative is to use a legal placement agency. Agencies can pre-screen candidates and try to match them to your firm’s particular needs. Using a temp agency also makes it easier to quickly scale up or down as your workload requires.

Of course, a placement agency charges a premium for their services and you end up paying much more per hour for the associate than you would if you had found and hired him or her directly. And should you want to convert a temp associate into a direct employee, the agency will charge a commission calculated as a percentage of the annual salary.

Small firms also should not underestimate word of mouth as another avenue to find qualified employees. Friends and colleagues who know you can often introduce you to someone who they believe will be a good match. This method has some of the advantages of using an agency (focused, personalized placements) without the expensive downside. Of course, this method is the slowest and it may take an unacceptably long time for this method to result in the perfect hire.

Regardless how prospects and firms find each other, interviewing with smaller firms can be especially taxing for both the candidate and firm. From the firm’s perspective, interviews are time-consuming yet absolutely necessary. Some candidates who look good on paper are not good fits. From the candidate’s perspective, interviews are stressful because so much rides on what you say and do. Nonetheless, interviews are critical for prospective associates because there is so much variance in smaller firms in terms of the quality of the work, degree of responsibility, general work environment, etc. What sounds like a dream job on paper might be a nightmare.

My advice for attorneys applying for positions with small or boutique law firms is to learn what needs the firm has, or what problems it faces, and explain how you can help. I receive cover letters and resumes that showcase the skill sets of the candidate, but do not try to explain why those skill sets might interest me. You should learn as much as possible about the firm to which you are applying and tailor your application accordingly.

You also should express your eagerness for the position. All employers would love their employees to have some passion about their job beyond the paycheck. But candidates for small law firm jobs should make sure they express their interest in terms of how they think they can help the firm thrive. I have seen a lot of cover letters that say, “I really want to work for your firm because I have always wanted to do X.” That suggests to me that I would be doing a favor by hiring the candidate to do something they have otherwise been unable to do. A better approach is to say, “I really want to work for your firm because you do X and I am certain I can help you do X even better.”

Interviewing candidates is humbling. I can’t help but be struck by the number of excellent but unemployed attorneys out there. I can’t count how many unemployed or underemployed attorneys I’ve written or spoken to who, by any objective standard, are surely among our country’s brightest, most capable and hard working people. Even if hiring is especially challenging for small and boutique firms, confronting those challenges is surely one of the nicer problems to have. I’m sure it’s better than the problem of having too many attorneys.


Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at tomwallerstein@coltwallerstein.com.

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