Choosing a Law Firm: Which One is Right for You?

“All Law Firms Are the Same”

You have probably heard this phrase several times since you’ve been in law school.  It’s thrown around a lot and, indeed, most law students buy into it before they actually start working at a law firm.  Yes, many aspects of large law firms are similar—salary, office locations, and practice areas.  But if these are the factors you are considering when choosing a law firm, it really can seem like all law firms are just a collection of names.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Law firms can be very different in meaningful ways, and we’re not talking about Vault ranking.

This is the first in a series of posts that will discuss how to more meaningfully differentiate law firms.  Choosing a law firm is one of the most important decisions a law student can make.  Over the next several weeks, future articles will look in-depth at how law firms differ and how to choose firms based on who you are and who they like.

What Matters?

There are tons of websites that publish materials about law firms.  Unfortunately, none of the information you find online is a crystal ball that tells you at which firms you will flourish.  Too many students pick firms based on rankings and statistics that have little bearing on whether they will be successful.

Choosing a law firm isn’t like choosing a law school.  Most rankings don’t really help students understand their prospects for long term success.  In fact, many of the ranking systems include information completely irrelevant to a student’s job search, such as profits per partner or revenue growth over the past fiscal year.  Relying solely on such rankings in your job search is a recipe for having a few miserable years in practice.

There are really only two things that will determine your success and happiness at a law firm or any organization – the firm’s culture and how you fit into it.  Sounds simple?  Well, it is and it isn’t.

What Is Culture (see definition)?

The most basic analogy for the culture of an organization is personality.  In many corporations, the leaders make conscious decisions about what kind of culture they want and carefully cultivate and manage that culture.  Culture can be a powerful tool that focuses employees towards a shared vision or common goal.  Culture can also develop organically and change as a firm hires new employees.

Most large law firms are not as deliberate as corporations when it comes to creating and sustaining a culture.  Often, a law firm’s culture grows from the collective personalities of its attorneys.  This influences how tasks are managed, how long attorneys are expected to work, whether and how much autonomy a young associate has, and what behavior will or will not be tolerated.  Simply put, a firm’s culture will have a significant role in determining which associates will and will not be successful.  Those with personalities that fit well within the firm’s culture likely will have long and rewarding careers at that firm, while those whose personalities clash with the firm’s culture likely will be shown the door within a few years.

Know Thyself.

Knowing about a firm’s culture is not helpful unless you know yourself well enough to know how you’ll fit into that culture.  While it seems simple, knowing yourself and how you react to different situations is pretty difficult if you haven’t been exposed to a wide variety of work environments.  People tend to have inflated or very basic understandings of how they like to work.  “I will work hard” and “I am a team player” are too simplistic.  Instead, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do I like to get and give feedback?
  • Do I thrive in more structured or more entrepreneurial environments?
  • Do I like to work alone or in teams?
  • How comfortable am I with taking direction?
  • What drives me to perform at my best?  The promise of a raise or praise from a client?
  • What are my obligations outside of work?
  • Am I more comfortable having a steady flow of work assigned to me or would I rather find assignments of my own choosing?
  • How comfortable am I asking questions or asking for help?

The answers to these and similar questions will dictate the cultures you should look for—the best fit firm where you can attain long term success and happiness.  Keep in mind that law firms vary widely on how they want you to answer these questions, so you need to find the firm that is the right fit for you.

Okay, So How Am I Supposed to Figure this Out?

Well, it’s kind of like dating—research can only take you so far.  Like dating services, your law schools career center can help point you in the right direction, as they know a bit about you and more about the law firms.  So it’s probably a good idea to start there.  But in the end, the best person to choose the right firm for you is you.  And the best way to start looking for the right law firm is to go out and meet them.

In an ideal world, students would be able to acquaint themselves with law firms over a period of several months, gaining exposure to the atmosphere in a firm’s offices and the personalities that make up its associates.  Legal recruiting today, however, is like speed dating.  It’s a whirlwind.  Students and firms don’t always get the chance to engage in meaningful exchange.

That’s where LearnLeo can help.  Our Career Portal is designed to bring firms and students together so they can take time to get to know each other well before making a commitment and without the pressure.

In the “How to Choose a Law Firm” series of blog posts we will expand on things like firm culture, self-reflection, and interviewing tips.  So stay tuned.


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