Even the fact that Nemorino regularly apologizes for not posting more often rings true: modern law practice tends to suck you dry and leave little time for other pursuits, or even time for basic needs. There were occasions in practice when I did not get an opportunity to pee all afternoon, let alone engage in luxuries such as blog posts or phone calls to my wife. And no, that is not an exaggeration. For the record, I also once fell asleep at work while standing up, after billing about 33 hours straight.
So when Nemorino posted a comment to my March 20, 2006 post on big law firm salary increases, I thought a reply warranted its own blog post. Nemorino's question was as follows:
NEMORINO'S BRIEF AND TO THE POINT QUESTION: "Do you think it's better for a young lawyer to start in a smaller firm? I struggle with this question every single day and I'd be really curious to hear your thoughts."
MY SHORT ANSWER: The short answer is decidedly unhelpful and legalistic: it depends on how you define the word "better." So let me see if I can elaborate a bit.
MY LONG-WINDED PROFESSORIAL ANSWER: The long answer to this question is hopefully a bit more useful. Actually, it is a series of answers.
First, there is the question of what you'll be able to do as a junior associate. I surmise this is what Nemorino is getting at. It is generally true that at big firms you might get caught doing document review and legal memos, while a peer at a smaller firm might get to take depositions or even go to court. So as a general matter that perhaps weighs the balance in favor of smaller firms. But there are also large firms out there that push work down as much as possible, and with legal fees being so high these days I think that is becoming more common at big firms. That's what I saw occurring when I was in big firm practice, anyway.
Of course, the push-down rate for work at big firms also depends on what department you are in. Associates in specialty departments (e.g., IP, health care law) tend to get more client contact and cool assignments earlier than their peers trapped in the belly of the litigation or corporate department beast. So for them, much of the advantage of small firms disappears. I had great assignments and regular client contact practically from day one in my specialty international trade law practice--even though I was at big firms. It was fantastic experience: hands-on, and very exciting.
Second, there is the issue of mobility. Not just geographically, but within and between the various strata that make up the legal profession. The common wisdom when I was in law school in the 1990s was that it is easier to start at a big firm and migrate to a smaller one than vice versa. So if you want to maximize your mobility, start at the top. I think that remains generally true, although perhaps a bit less so than in the past.
Why is it still true? Because for better or worse, in law the perceived quality or prestige of a law firm (or government department, for that matter) is used a proxy for how desirable a lateral hire is. Some bigger firms have marquee names, and because they are bigger they are more more visible. So their name gives you cache if you try to leave. On the other hand, if you are with a small, 5-lawyer shop, the value of your proxy is generally less, although there are some small firms with high profiles out there.
So if you are looking for marketability--to move to another town or within your local community--a big firm carries more weight.
Third, there is the issue of mentoring. I think this one is a toss-up, since it is going to depend on the individual lawyers you work for, not the size of the firm. Some big firms have training programs that are abysmal (see my previous posts here and here), while others may not but still provide great individualized training. Small firms may offer more one-on-one time with senior attorneys, but don't assume that small firm or solo practitioners are not buried in work, because many are just as swamped as big firm lawyers (or even moreso) and have little time for mentoring.
The best mentor I ever had was at a big firm, and another excellent one was at a small firm for which I clerked one summer. The worst mentors I ever had were at a big firm.
The best I can say is to trust your instincts on this one. If a potential boss feels like a "good fit" professionally, chances are he or she is (no guarantees, however). Still, it doesn't hurt to nose around and see what other people think.
Fourth, there is the question of what practice area you want to be in. Some practice areas are better suited to big firms and big cities, and some are not.
For example, my practice area of international trade controls on the export side was not as conducive to small firm practice—at least at the junior level. And being in Washington, D.C. was almost a necessity as a junior attorney looking for on-the-job training in cutting edge matters.
On the other hand, on the import side there were a lot of successful boutique firms, as well as some departments in big firms, so that option was available to me when customs law was my primary focus early in my career. And there were (and still are) high quality customs law practices outside D.C.
The same can be said for white collar criminal defense or IP work--you can do it at big or small firms. But for learning about big, hairy corporate deals? Usually a big firm in a big city is better, although there are exceptions to that general rule, too.
Finally, make sure you are asking the right question! The question "Small firm v. big firm?" is a good one to ask. But should you instead be asking questions such as:
- "Am I happy, or at least satisfied, doing what I do right now?"
- "Could I really enjoy practice in my current area of law, or should I change practice areas?"
- "Am I willing to put up with some of the less attractive aspects of law practice to get where I want to go in life?"
If the answers are "Yes," then that's great. However, if the answers to all of these questions are "No," then get out--or at least make a change within the field of law.
You have to really believe in what you are doing in the practice of law to make it worthwhile. Otherwise it is a long, hard grind that is not worth the cost in terms of time, pressure, stress, affect on family life, etc. I tell my students that there are always too many lawyers but never enough good ones. I suppose I could add that there are always too many lawyers but never enough happy ones.
So if your current line of practice is not worth the cost to you, then please do some serious soul-searching and make a change. Stability is not worth a withering soul, and I mean it, even if the result is financially difficult. Just do not make a move hastily. Think about it, decide you are sure, do your research, find a new position, and THEN leave. It may even take a few years to put together your move. But that's better than moving hastily and then going bankrupt. And in the meantime, you will be amazed at how calming it is to actually be doing something about your situation, instead of just feeling trapped. I say that from firsthand experience.
So I hope this post has been not only long, but also helpful. And I hope that in assessing your career and life goals and options, you ask the right questions and find the answers that are right for you.