Big Fish, Small Pond? Thinking About Alternatives to Big Law

Many law students, even those in the Top 15, can’t or don’t want to work at a large firm after graduation. In fact, the American Bar Association (ABA) reported that forty-five percent of law students at the top fifteen law schools don’t work in “Big Law” after graduation.

Big Law gets a lot of hype in the law school world. Many baby lawyers participate in summer associateships, launching their careers at large law firms before graduation. Biglaw bombards 1Ls; school events are plastered with ubiquitous banners announcing the names of “platinum” and “associate” level sponsors, some student groups have student-attorney mentorship programs in which biglaw attorneys participate, and law school clinics may partner with the local office of a large firm. Of course, a lot of the stress over 1L grades stems from fear that poor performance during the first year forever forecloses the possibility of a “golden ticket” –a coveted spot in a renowned summer associate program the summer after 2L.

Small and mid-sized firms, on the other hand, do not get as much exposure at law schools. At best students don’t know about these alternatives to Big Law and the possibilities available at small and mid-sized firms. At worst, small and mid-sized firms are viewed as less prestigious and less desirable than big firms. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Such misperceptions are particularly unfortunate because many students may feel as if they are square pegs in misshapen holes at large firms. Hopefully, we can begin to shed some light on the undiscovered opportunities at boutique firms by highlighting some key differences between large and small firms.

Big Law

The biggest differences between big firms and small and mid-sized firms are: predictability, structure, and resources.

If you secure a summer associate job after your 2L year, your path is well-trodden and predictable: experience difference practice groups during the summer, work diligently on your assignments, don’t do anything too stupid, make sure the economy doesn’t implode, and you are nearly certain of securing an offer at the end of the summer.

Large firms are very structured. If you choose to stick it out at a large firm for the next ten years or so, you will rise through the ranks of junior associate, mid-level associate, senior associate, junior partner, and senior partner.

When you start as a junior associate, you will likely be segmented in a particular group. Very few firms allow you to dabble in different practice groups during your first few years at the firm. Your duties as a junior associate will be distinct from more senior associates until you’ve paid your dues and earned the trust of at least one partner. As a junior associate, it is sometimes difficult to piece together for your work fits into the puzzle (especially when you’re spending hours doing document review, or making sure the “t’s” are crossed in a purchase agreement).

If you are in litigation, it is unlikely that you will be going to status calls or taking depositions even within the first three years of your employment. Much of your day will be spent writing, researching, and doing things that are unrelated to what you learn in law school, like dealing with e-discovery logistics issues with outside vendors, or even working with paralegals to construct a binder of materials that a partner requested.

Large firms have access to a number of in-house resources. In addition to extensive libraries, knowledgeable librarians, and top-notch research tools, the partners and associates are a treasure trove of information and experience. When an impossible deadline emerges in a case or deal, the firm will be able to throw resources, be they people or money, to overcome the problem.

Small and Mid-Sized Firms

Small and mid-sized firms (“small firm” = 49 or fewer attorneys, “mid-sized firm” = 50-100 attorneys), unlike large firms, tend to focus on a few select areas of law; e.g. “employment boutiques,” appellate litigation, patent litigation. Learn more about these firms in the Career App.

Unlike large firms, small and mid-size firms do not tend to recruit talent straight out of law school. These firms may not interview on-campus or even have a formal summer associate program. Securing a summer position at a small or mid-sized firm requires a lot of networking and outreach to associates and partners. Even if you were to secure a summer position at a small firm, there is no guarantee that your summer will result in a full-time offer. Thus, you may have to continue to search for permanent employment during your 2L summer, possibly into your 3L year.

However, if you are looking for responsibility from the get-go, a small or mid-sized firm may be the perfect fit. Many firms have an “all hands on deck” policy—the limited number of attorneys means more work, and thus, more responsibility for each attorney. Young associates at small and mid-sized firms will likely be responsible not only for drafting motions or conducting research, but may also be responsible for negotiating agreements, leading client meetings, taking depositions, and participating in trials.

Unlike at a big firm, where a mid-level or senior associate will likely manage you, at a small or mid-sized firm, you will probably work directly for a partner. Furthermore, like attorneys at big firms, small and mid-sized firms also need to bring in clients. Because small and mid-sized firms typically require their associates to shoulder more responsibility from the get go, you may be tasked with brining in new clients earlier than expected. Similarly, if you decide to stay at a boutique firm long term, your path to partnership may be expedited because small and mid-sized firms are unlikely to have a formal partnership track.

These firms’ “all hands on deck” policy applies to the less glamorous work as well, and smaller firms will not have the same resources or cost-insenitive clients that big law firms (and their associates) enjoy. So be prepared to review documents, summarize depositions, negotiate agreements, and appear in court, all in the same day.

If you feel as if a large firm is is not quite the perfect fit think about the alternatives to Big Law and the opportunities a small or mid-sized firm will offer. If you are interested in pursuing opportunities at a small firm, keep an eye out for next week’s blog post: Netting An Associateship at a Small or Mid-Sized Firm.

comments powered by Disqus