A long-distance friend of mine recently emailed me this question:
“I’m interviewing with a small boutique firm that just opened. They actually have a lot in common with your firm in that they have two partners who were at a big firm and left so they could do their own thing. I was wondering if there’s anything that jumps out at you as something you look for in job candidates for your firm that might not have been as important if you were interviewing them for a position in Biglaw?”
I thought that was a great question, and insightful, because there are indeed some very important differences between interviewing with a small firm or boutique and interviewing for an associate position in Biglaw.
This is what I told her.
When interviewing with a very small firm or solo practitioner, you should emphasize that you aren’t above doing whatever is necessary to help the firm, including licking envelopes or helping with the filing or whatever other administrative tasks are necessary. Small firms don’t have the back end support of a big firm so it is often important that everyone is willing to do everything. Especially for a new firm, cash may be scarce and the firm benefits by having its attorneys do whatever is necessary, even routine, non-billable administrative work.
(Incidentally, once the firm has sufficient cash flow, the firm should reallocate attorney efforts to billable work and business development. I constantly try to emphasize that firms are penny wise but pound foolish if they decline to delegate work to less expensive employees.)
You should let the partners of a new firm know that you appreciate the risk they took in starting their own firm. With a new firm, nothing’s for certain; it could always go wrong. This appreciation goes a long way and helps separate you from naïve candidates who purport to run the numbers and impliedly question why the salary they are offered is a fraction of their billable rate.
It also behooves you to express your confidence that the risk will pay off and that the firm will be successful, and that you want to do whatever you can to help play a role in ensuring the firm’s success. Inherent in risk is the prospect of failure. Any new firm lives with that potential outcome. At a big firm, saying you want to help it succeed is pompous and ridiculous: it just needs you to do the work you’re given. But with a new, small firm, trying to help them succeed will resonate. As I put it once before, “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.”
A lot of candidates don’t seem to fully appreciate that partners of a new firm consider it to be almost like their baby, and that bringing someone else in is a momentous decision. When you interview with a small firm, you want to convey that you appreciate the personal nature of what they are doing. At a big firm, few if any people who interview you truly loves the firm and owns it like the partners of a small firm do. Showing you understand that goes a long way.
Our ideal candidate has worked in Biglaw, and could again, but chooses not to. We have seen plenty of candidates who make it obvious that they would rather have a Biglaw job if they could, but they are interviewing with us as a second-best alternative. We think that is misguided for a number of reasons, but in any event it is also offensive. When you interview with a firm, you should try to convince them that your being hired by them would be a superior option for you when compared to working in a traditional Biglaw firm. They want to believe that, as the years pass and you look back, you never had doubts or thoughts of regret.
One of the most important attributes to have when interviewing with a solo or small firm, especially a newer one, is to evidence an “ownership mentality.” That means that I want every employee to consider himself or herself to be a “partner” in the firm’s success, regardless of their title or compensation. In a very small firm, there is often no room for a mere “employee.” Because every employee of a small firm is critical, it needs to hire people who share a belief and desire for the firm’s success; it doesn’t want to hire someone who just wants a “job.” This can be especially challenging for Biglaw associates who interview with the mindset that their value is defined by their ability to bill a lot of hours. Unfortunately, in small law especially, you are not your hours. And, well, you can never tell; you just might end up with an equity position someday anyway.
Accordingly, when I interview candidates, I want them to appreciate that they are getting in on the ground floor of an enterprise that is poised to become ever more successful over time. A new law firm is a startup like any other, and working for a startup should be exciting because of the infinite potential. Silicon Valley is all about excitement and enthusiasm and potential, and we look for candidates who share our enthusiasm for our firm and what we are building. We hire a secretary with the hope, or at least the possibility, that she will one day be a highly-compensated office manager. We hire a junior associate with the possibility that he or she will one day become a partner.
My friend just told me this week that my interview advice apparently paid off, as she was just hired to be the first associate of the two-partner firm. I’m looking forward to hearing about her continuing success, and eager for our first opportunity to work together.
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 email@example.com.