Small firms

“If you go to a large firm, invest a few years, then decide you want to start a career somewhere else, you're handicapping yourself. Find a place you want to be and give it everything.”

What is a 'small' firm? 

ALTHOUGH the term 'BigLaw' will be heard umpteen times on campus and throughout the legal community, the lack of a steadfast definition can cause confusion over what actually constitutes a 'big' or 'small' firm. The commonly accepted viewpoint is that a BigLaw job involves working in a large firm that pays attorneys the highest rates, demands long hours, and tends to represent large corporations rather than individuals. While some small firms may share similar characteristics with BigLaw, such as paying $215,000 base (unlikely) and expecting insane hours, if they only have 50 lawyers operating in rural North Dakota it's hard to place them in the same bracket.

According to Small Firms, Big Opportunity: How to Get Hired (and Succeed) in the New Legal Economy (Linda Calvert Hanson, Samantha Williams), more attorneys are currently working in firms with 20 or fewer lawyers than in any other legal employment segment, while the percentage of those getting jobs with small firms continues to rise at a significant rate.

Knowing about small firms and the opportunities they present could be a crucial factor in landing a job. Not everyone is destined for Baker & McKenzie, after all.

Types of firm 

Small firms can be split into one of three categories, as defined by Hanson and Williams:

  • The general practice firm. It handles a wide variety of cases and is staffed with well-rounded lawyers. Such firms offer a broad range of services and generally take on anything that walks through the door. This type of firm tends to handle less complex matters than BigLaw because they are less able to staff larger cases.
  • The specialty, or boutique firm. These firms handle only matters relating to a specific practice area, such as labor law or intellectual property. Boutique firms are a growing trend in the legal community, mainly because it is difficult to be all things to all clients.
  • The complementary practices firm. By far the greatest number of small law firms fall within the complementary practices model. In this model, several supporting practice areas are handled by different attorneys so the firm doesn't have to outsource its services to meet the needs of clients. For example, an IP boutique might run a complementary healthcare practice.

Get hired 

The recruitment procedure at small firms is often an unknown quantity, heightened by the fact that the ins and outs of the process very much depend on the firm. While some might participate in OCIs, run summer programs and take on as many as half a dozen new starters each year, others can't anticipate their staff needs in advance, so will recruit only when an actual need arises.

Peter Erly, former managing partner at Vermont-based Gravel & Shea, tells us: “We're somewhat passive when it comes to recruiting. If you're just out of law school you just have to send a resume here and if we have a need we'll consider you.” Tom Curley, a former hiring partner at the once DC-headquartered Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz (the firm has since merged with Ballard Spahr), adds: “Because of our practice areas – libel defense, trademark and copyright work – students with that passion will generally seek us out. When we have a particular need to hire we might advertise, or come to careers fairs or interview sessions.” Erik Ericksen, hiring partner at Utah's Thorpe North and Western, concludes: “I think smaller firms are a little less rigid about how they recruit.”

Even firms that commit time to recruiting on campus won't turn their noses up at candidates who chance their hand. “We welcome individuals writing to the firm,” says Tim Ford, hiring partner at Florida's Hill Ward Henderson. “We will consider anybody's resume. We have experienced a lot of success with people we haven't seen on campus.” David Brackett, partner and member of the recruiting committee at Georgia-based Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, agrees this is a key method of recruitment. “We recruit on campus at a small number of schools but anyone can send a resume or letter of interest. Much of our recruiting is actually through that route,” he says.

It's important to bear in mind that while all of BigLaw will hire prior to graduation, a lot of smaller firms will only hire after licensure. That's because the nature of small-firm practice requires every lawyer to be utilized to the maximum. This means covering trials, signing court documents, taking depositions – all things new graduates are unable to do until they've passed the Bar. There aren't the same resources to pay an associate to sit around and do research all day.

“We're interviewing to identify a connection or desire to be in our local community."

Although there may not be the same glamor and allure of BigLaw, it doesn't mean small firms' hiring criteria are any less strenuous. “We’re obviously looking for good grades,” says Tom Curley. “They tend to reflect an ability to engage in legal reasoning and as a litigation-focused firm that's very important for us.” David Brackett adds: “We want to see people who've done very well in law school and are at the very top of their class.” Just like BigLaw though, academic ability is no guarantee of a job offer. “In the interview I got a sense they thought everyone was intellectually qualified,” an associate source informed us. “The rest of the process was finding personalities that fit with the firm.” Finding a personality 'fit' appears acutely more significant the fewer attorneys a firm has. Employing someone out of sync with tight-knit, collegial operations is much more likely to rock the boat in a firm of 50 attorneys than in a firm with over 1,000. “It's like adding a drop of food coloring to a glass rather than a swimming pool,” concludes Kirk O'Connell, founding partner of a five-attorney criminal defense firm in Orlando.

A key element in the recruitment process is finding candidates with affiliations to the locality they'll be working in. “We look for a connection to Vermont in some sense,” says Peter Erly. “You've got to want to live here and not in the glamor of New York. Competing against big firms on campus is a giant waste of time as those who want to live in Vermont will come to us.” Tim Ford concurs: “We're interviewing to identify a connection or desire to be in our local community. It might be a risk to recruit someone who doesn't have that desire.” Erik Ericksen adds: “Finding candidates with a connection to Utah is not a dominant factor in our recruiting, but it's unavoidable to think that people might want to jump ship. If we have two candidates with similar credentials and one has ties to Utah, that might be a deciding factor in their favor. If they have those ties, then they're more likely to stay long term.”

Ericksen's point alludes to the fact there isn't the same burn and churn approach you may find at certain BigLaw hothouses. Recruiters at small firms are constantly looking ahead. “We really do focus on the long term here,” says Tim Ford. “When I'm interviewing I'm trying to get a glimpse into the future and see if this person will become my partner. I want to see a desire to be part of our firm and our community for a long time.” An associate source joined a smaller firm so he could embark on a career from day one. “I didn't want to go to New York or Chicago for five years and then wash out of a big firm,” he told us. “Those following that track weren't going in with the mindset of making it a lifetime career. It was about making some money and then finding their real place. I wanted to find a firm that was prestigious, but also somewhere I could stay long term. My firm interviews candidates with the intention of them becoming shareholders, partners, and mentors to young people in the community.”

Bondurant Mixson & Elmore actively encourages its summer associates to split their time between themselves and a larger firm, thinking the comparative experience actually benefits Bondurant. "Candidates might choose to go to a bigger firm without ever even coming here,” reflects David Brackett. “But when they've had the chance to work at both a bigger firm and here, we've found they're more likely to come to us. The obvious benefit of letting candidates split their summer is that we might not get a chance with them at all otherwise.”

The work 

If you do successfully navigate the recruiting process, what can you expect once you join a small firm? “That's easy,” says David Brackett. “You start practicing law from the day you walk in the door. As we're litigation specialists you'll be taking depositions, drafting pleadings, writing briefs instead of research memos, and making arguments in court. We also try to make sure that everyone gets trial experience. We don’t have associate tasks and partner tasks here. We operate with very small teams of lawyers on even our biggest cases, so everyone is an integral part of the effort.”

The general consensus is that high-end responsibility comes fast-tracked at small firms, as Peter Erly explains: “If you're a litigator, you have a much greater ability to get into court and much more responsibility than you would otherwise have at an early stage of your career. Every one of our associates can be in court, participate in front of judges, and we try to get them to do trials. There's no comparison at a big firm, where you may never try a case in ten years.” An associate concluded: “I wasn't put in at the deep end in a shocking way, but very early on compared to my peers at other firms. By my third year I was handling cases entirely on my own."

For associates with their hearts set on a particular practice, boutique firms offer the chance to specialize from the off. “If you have a passion for libel defense, trademarks and copyright, you will get to do that work starting on day one,” Tom Curley says of Levine Sullivan. “It can be difficult at a larger firm to do the kind of work you are passionate about – they often want you to rotate.” Being pigeon-holed can, however, be a drawback depending on your career goals. “The main thing I tell people is that if you aren't certain you'd like to specialize, it may be more appropriate to join a big firm and get that broader range of experience,” continues Curley. “That way you can get a wide range of exposure to all sorts of things lawyers do. If you make a decision to specialize early on you lose that broad association.”

Are there any other potential drawbacks? “Some of our work is perhaps not as grand-scale as larger, national firms,” says Tim Ford. “For instance, we do not perform a lot of international work. If you want to work on multinational issues, then this is probably not the firm for you."

The culture 

Ask an attorney at a smaller firm about its culture and it's nigh-on impossible to find a response without the word “collegial.” A cliché it may be, but also one of the main allures of working in a condensed practice. “The firm's focus on selecting academically qualified candidates with the right personality fit has created a very cohesive, collegial culture within the firm,” an associate told us. “To me that means I could pick up the phone to anyone in the firm and just have a chat. There's a desire to have a group of people here that get along with each other. The managing partner sat in my office for ten minutes the other day just to discuss football.” David Brackett also speaks of the prevalent camaraderie at Bondurant: “There's a sense that we're all in this together. We socialize together but not in a burdensome, obligatory way. We have happy hours and parties for baby births and weddings. It's very collegial and very informal.” Tim Ford speaks in a similar way about Hill Ward Henderson: “We care about each other. My closest friends are individuals I work with here.”

A culture of hard work still prevails, but perhaps not in the all-consuming manner that BigLaw has become renowned for. “Living and working in Vermont as opposed to New York means that we work really hard, but not nearly as hard as those who are going round the clock,” says Peter Erly. “Our associates are not on a death march to bill 2,500 hours a year.” Tom Curley agrees: “I guess the culture of the firm is doing high-quality work in an area which we have a passion for, but by the same token allowing our attorneys to have meaningful lives outside the office.” Tim Ford summarizes Hill Ward Henderson's outlook: “Running off to a hearing is no more important than going to your kid's little league game. That's part of the allure of being in a smaller market or firm.”

Pro bono 

Attitudes to pro bono are very firm-dependent and the wide variety of responses our sources provided shows there is no specific pattern to how small firms approach it. “We do a range of pro bono activities, some of which are outside of our core field,” Tom Curley told us. “As a smaller firm we tend to think carefully about what we take on, though. It can consume too much of our associates' energy, so we try to see where our expertise can be brought to bear.” Erik Ericksen felt Thorpe North and Western's specialty made it hard to undertake pro bono. “As a patent law boutique it's tough for associates to get involved without long-term commitments,” he says. “We encourage them to participate in pro bono activity by donating to local legal aid services as a substitute for the actual work.” Litigators such as Gravel & Shea are keen participants though. “It's a great thing to do and gives our associates good courtroom experience,” reflects Peter Erly.

Hours & compensation 

It is almost guaranteed that smaller firms will offer a smaller pay check. Even those in the larger markets will offer compensation well below BigLaw competitors. Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, for example, offers its entry-level lawyers $125,000 – a full $35,000 below BigLaw rates in DC. This, however, is offset by the absence of any hugely intimidating hours commitments, with smaller firms generally adopting a more laid-back attitude. “Our billable hours aspiration – not a minimum – is 1,600,” LSKS's Tom Curley tells us. This is a good 300-500 hours less than the minimum expectations at most major firms in the North East. “The firm wants associates not to significantly exceed that target in any given year as well,” continues Curley. “We purposely set a target that's achievable, and also allows associates to turn the light off at the end of the day and go home at a reasonable hour.”

Gravel & Shea takes a different approach. “We don't really have a billable hours requirement,” Peter Erly explains. “It's more of a quality than quantity thing here. If the associates are doing really good work they'll have plenty to do, and hours are not really an issue. It's not like you have to work 2,000 hours a year here. We just look at whether you're doing your job."

“It's a partner's problem to make sure that associates are busy,” Erly continues. “In a smaller firm it's partially not an associate's fault a lot of the time – sometimes it's just not that busy. The luxury of being in a smaller place is that we know everyone's personal situation and you can't really hide. In a 3,000-lawyer firm you might not know the person, or their circumstances, from Adam.”

An associate source suggested smaller practices afford more flexibility with their hours requirements. “Most firms have a flat out minimum; we have an expectation,” he told us. “Rigid billable-hour standards don't allow the firm to account for individual circumstances and there's a philosophical belief that focusing on our clients will produce a meaningful number of hours. I would bet our lawyers bill as many hours as anyone else in the marketplace, but not just because someone says we have to.”

Career prospects 

Tim Ford believes that an accessible path to the top can be a major selling point of small-firm practice. “We offer an opportunity to become an equity partner in a relatively manageable time,” he says. “We have an eight-year partnership track so we're looking for associates to develop into standalone partners. It's not a pyramid system where we just churn through people.”

In fact, a commitment to promoting from within has seen Bondurant Mixson & Elmore completely forgo hiring laterals. “It's a historical factor that breeds loyalty,” David Brackett informs us. “A promise is made to our associates that we expect each of them to progress and become a partner, and we're not going to fill our partnership ranks with those from outside the firm – we will fill it with our own.”

Our sources were refreshingly objective when we asked about the potential drawbacks to joining a smaller outfit. “The disadvantage is that we're not set up to offer some of the training a larger firm would offer,” Peter Erly reflects. “You get training on the job, but there isn't that formal boot camp here. Training is a bit more disorganized.”

Erly also believes starting out at a smaller firm might handicap those with grander ambitions. “If you're working at Sullivan & Cromwell or a nationally renowned firm it will be a bit easier to get a job somewhere else down the line,” he tells us. “Our associates have all secured good jobs, but they don’t all go on to big firms. They either go to another firm in Vermont or work in government. If you're looking for job mobility on a national basis, you won't get that at Gravel & Shea.” An associate source concurred: “If you go to one of the Am Law 100 you'll have a very recognizable career history. People will have to dig a bit more to know where I'm coming from.”

Current issues 

“In terms of recruitment we actually benefited from the weakness of the economy,” David Brackett explains. “The firms we usually compete with weren't hiring as many associates so more high-quality candidates came to us.” Securing the best candidates is generally tough for smaller outfits, though. “The kind of folks we'd like to hire are often very much in demand from the biggest household names,” says Tom Curley. “A lot of top students can be wary about specializing too early in their careers, and while that may tip the balance in our favor with some candidates, going up against big firms where associates can get that range of experience – and a good name on their resume – can be hard.”

“The events of the recent past have shown associates it's not always the safest option to join a big firm.”

With slow growth mentalities and less vulnerability to the peaks and troughs of the economy, some commentators have argued that smaller firms have been better equipped to deal with the effects of the recession. “The events of the recent past have shown associates it's not always the safest option to join a big firm,” says David Brackett. “We don't staff up in boom times but we don't lay off in the tough times, either.” 

From a business viewpoint, small firms contend with similar issues to those at the peak of BigLaw. “I think that we face the challenges everyone does,” says Tim Ford. “We're a service industry and we rely on our clients. If they're having a hard time that will translate to us.” This could, however, prove beneficial. “Companies are looking for more bang for their buck,” Ford continues, “and we hit that target very well. We have all the resources to provide the big-firm service at a more economical price.”

Sometimes the main challenge is just making your voice heard: “There's certainly a lot of competition out there,” David Brackett reflects. “As a litigation boutique, our practice is just like that of the litigation department of a large firm, but it's a bit more difficult to get the word out about who we are.”