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Can You Really Learn To Be Lawyer At Big Law? Small Firms Offer Experience You Can’t Get Tied To A desk

Carolyn Elefant over at Myshingle.com has a great post called Everything You Need to Know to Succeed As An Associate, You Can Learn From Solo Practice.  I started my career working for some of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the country.  It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the associates who had been there for four to six years were no longer focused on how much money they were making.  No doubt, their paychecks were within the top 10% of other lawyers working at other mega-firms.  It seems that money was not, after all, the most important thing. 

The number one complaint by mid-level associates is that they don’t get to do anything.  They don’t get to go to court.  They don’t get to argue motions.  They don’t get to take depositions.  They don’t get to craft legal strategy.  They don’t get to make decisions about how their law firm runs as a business or set policy.  There is no room or flexibility for any business process outside what is already established.  Actually, the things I just stated aren’t really true, are they?  Mid-level associates do get to take depositions.  They take depositions of people who new partners and upper-level partners have decided they have no interest in participating in.  Yes, they are meaningless depositions but you do get to learn what the court reporter says to begin and start the deposition.  It is, clearly, important to know how witnesses are sworn in. 

They actually do get to attend motions.  Well, not the motions that are strategically important in the case.  They get to handle the motions that really often don’t count, you know the ones that the lawyers billed on but really don’t move the ball for the client.  All the good motions go to the lawyers further up the ladder.

And yes, they do get to make business decisions such as what color office chair they will have amongst the three options.  They do get to manage their shared secretary within obvious limits.  These are often important business decisions like what the secretary will say when the lawyer is sitting at their desk but wants to pretend to be unavailable or how paper flows in and out of their inbox. 

Carolyn is correct.  Law students with great grades often get trapped by the lure of big law salaries and prestige.  But if you are a lawyer that wants something more than your law firms name to hold up as proof that you are a real lawyer, you should at least consider the alternatives of small and medium-sized law firms where you will be thrown into the fire from day one.  Here is an excerpt from Carolyn’s article in this months issue of The Complete Lawyer.

If you’ve just read this [blog post's] title, you’re probably racking your brain trying to figure out what the heck a lowly solo practitioner like me can teach you about succeeding as a law firm associate.

You probably think that solos simply churn out form documents for simpleton clients who need help with run-of-the-mill problems like estate planning, divorce or landlord tenant matters, while law firm associates grapple with earth-shattering matters, sophisticated business clients and demanding law firm partners. And for goodness sakes, you’re billed out at an hourly rate that matches or exceeds what most solos charge. So what secrets of success can you possibly learn from us?

Plenty. But before we get started, you’ll have to dispel your negative impression of solo practitioners. First, though you may not realize it,  many solos handle complicated, traditionally “biglaw matters” such as tax, corporate transactional work, regulatory and complex litigation. Even solos with consumer-oriented specialties like criminal law, consumer credit, bankruptcy or family law regularly encounter constitutional issues or dissect tricky federal and state statutes. And while solos may charge less than a biglaw associate, because of lean staffing and low overhead, they also pocket a larger percentage (as much as 80%) of that $300/hr billable than you do.

Solos also oversee office administration, manage employees or virtual staff, and constantly market their practices. Once you begin to view solos not as loser-lawyers who couldn’t cut it in biglaw practice but as a blend of independent lawyer, team manager and entrepreneur, you’ll appreciate how solos’ secrets of success can help you succeed as well.
 

Comments

Small law lawyer; Lawyer; Small firm

Big law will always lure top law graduates. There is the money, the association with a named law firm that supposedly brings immediate credibility, and the "you are supposed to work with the best" influences.

Fortunately, there will also always be those who know the money will come, want their name to mean more than the named partners in the firm name, and want to actually be the best practitioners as soon as possible.

At the end of the day I am proud to say what I did and what I accomplished, rather than saying "the firm did this today." I am proud to know that my partners and I are striving for the same goal and participating equally in achieving it. I am proud to say that I, rather than "the firm," was instrumental in handling the big case, in developing new business, in changing the way law is practiced, and in solving numerous legal issues in and out of court. I am most proud to say that I did it all after 1 year of practice.

Big Law is right for many and offers great things...especially when you are willing to wait 6 years for it. I will check back in 6 years and do another comparison. I suspect I will have again affirmed my beliefs, 6 times over!

law student

If solos are so successful, why can they only afford to pay new lawyers $15 to $25 an hour, with no benefits?

Large law firms pay like 3x that just for the rent on the associate's office space.

BS exposed . . .

The truth is the solo market is crowded as heck, and there just isn't enough work to go around. The good (high paying) work goes to the top law firms, or prestigious boutiques which operate like a top law firm.

law student

One other thing. Small firms don't even list their junior $15-$25/hour attorneys on their websites. That should tell you a bit about how much "influence" junior attorneys have at a solo firm. Check Ms. Elefant's website for example. The only bio on there is her own. Check other solo or small firm websites.

I know junior attorneys at solo firms. They are complete nobodies, and often abused. Blogs like ATL might love covering the rare abuse story at a biglaw firm, they wouldn't give two cents about how a small firm lawyer treats his junior attorneys.

So yeah, if you want to be an insignificant nobody, who gets paid pizza delivery wages, with no benefits, to get yelled at by a boss not limited by biglaw shackles like human resources or firm image, then yeah solo is the way to go!

GAL

Interesting post Anon. There are certainly solos who struggle. But you are wrong that there are not good solo/small firm options out there. You do have to look a little harder, no doubt. And you still have to have a resume to match your salary expectations.

Also, many boutique firms do not march lock-step with big law. Many of those firms exist because departments at big law split off from big law to innovate and ditch the big law process. There are some amazing innovative boutique firms out there. They may not be as flexible as a solo practice. But there are much more flexible than big law.

As to pay, I would agree that there are no low pay big law jobs. There are many low pay small firm jobs. But there are also high pay small firm jobs as well. For instance, we pay our new attorneys competitive with big law in big cities (Despite the fact that we are in a small town). We pay law clerks $20/hour.

Finally, you have to ask yourself where you want to be in 3-6 years. Many of my classmates who could not get big law jobs out of law school make way more money than the big law partners who cap out early in their careers.

law student

So you have a lot of classmates making more than biglaw partners? Oh really?

One other question. If biglaw associates don't do or learn anything, how do they develop into biglaw partners?

Bottom line is money talks and bullshit walks. If you had any you'd pay your junior lawyers. You don't have any money, so all you can offer is "experience."

GAL

Hmm. I take it you work for BigLaw Anon. Tell me more about your situation.

I have been practicing for 18 years. I have classmates who are managing partners at BigLaw, and many who are partners at BigLaw. But the guys pulling down high 6 figures and 7 figures ... well none of them worked for BigLaw, or at least not for very long. And they play golf whenever they want. :-)

If you think $250k is 'Big Money,' than BigLaw is for you.

BigLaw has its place. I gained some valuable insights (notice I did not use the owrd expereince) at BigLaw myself.

And the associates who become partners often don't get real experience 'before becoming partner.' But then experience is not the measure at big law. It is hours and revenue. BigLaw trains their associates to bill 6 minute increments. That's the experience they gain, and the experience they need to get ahead in their environment. They often get their self-worth from dropping the firm letterhead name and discussing the 'big' cases they are involved in (of course their involvement is often as a paper pusher).

But most of all, as is evident in this thread, BigLaw associates are threatened by the concept that there are alternatives to BigLaw, there there is more to accomplish as an attorney than letterhead self-worth and that small and solo practices offer something BigLaw can't, testing your legal skills against more than the hourly billing clock.

So there is no doubt, the easiest way to make some decent money out of law school is to become a BigLaw associate. But for lawyers who can wait a little for the big bucks, who want to actually practice law, and whose egos can't be satiated by a fancy offices, there are alternatives.

JD/MBA

You mean you have some friends who are PI lawyers with a few contigency fee cases under their belt? Statistics tell us that those super rich tort lawyers exist, but they are outliers and law students should not place undue weight in choosing their careers because they are extremely rare.

And GAL obviously doesn't have too many connections with the top firms. Most of top firm partners average $2 million+. Who said $250k is big money??? It sounds like you have the term "biglaw" confused with regional mid-sized firms.

Law students, no matter what those solos say to justify their choices, go to biglaw, if such option is available to you. Statistics have told us over and over again that the greatest indicator of your life time earnings is your starting salary.

Paul

I think the law student is confused. I work for a 20 member law firm that is very professionally run. Sure, my starting salary was significantly south of six figures ($55k) in a city of 200,000, but I have a nice house and am able to spend time with my friends and loved ones. I work 40-43 hours a week and have worked 1 sunday and no saturdays in the past year. If you want a good quality of life, a well-run small firm is for you.

Nein

The biggest problem with this argument is directionality of options, as has already been commented on. NEVER - at least to my recollection - have I heard of someone who was unable to transition from Big Law to a smaller (or even solo) setting. It's always an option. The only 'failures' I've heard of in those instances are where the individual wasn't truly motivated to set up his own practice or was half-hearted about the transition.

On the other hand, stories of (even very skilled and successful) 'small law' lawyers failing to break into big law several years out are a dime a dozen. Regardless of how successful you are (and I'm excluding the 'Johnny Cochrane' 1 in a million types here) you immediately limit your future career options by going small.

And that's the crux of the matter. For a young person (say, in their 20s) to avoid big law at the start of their career just doesn't make sense. Pedigree, compensation, exit options, experience, and opportunity all suggest to start big and then, IF you are dissatisfied, downsize or lateral into another sector e.g. public service.

GAL

Nein: I can't argue with you about starting out at BigLaw. Just don't get stuck. Know that you will be working huge hours, most likely be miserable for a while, have to deal with firm politics, get ready for associate/partner in-fighting and stand well below 1-3 mentors who will take all the best tasks for themselves. One thing that BigLaw tends to do is provide a great environment to enhance writing and drafting skills. BigLaw is also a great place to go to to pay off some bills, enhance your resume and get your feet wet (although too often in small in puddles).

I would take issue with the concept that lawyers who don't start out at BigLaw can't end up at Big Law. Many do through recruiting, mergers etc. Most satellite offices of BigLaw firms take over local successful office of niche practice groups. Many of those folks never worked for BigLaw.

If you are an individual attorney looking to go to BigLaw as a lateral, you may need a good book of business to come with you.

GAL

I would also say that many BigLaw lawyers do fail in the transition to move to a smaller environment because they never learned how to 'run' a case, generate clients, operate a business, network, etc. I know a lot of BigLaw attorneys who moved out of their big office (either voluntarily or by force) who failed because they never gained the tools they need to be successful in business.

I have no doubt that their chance of success would have been enhanced greatly if they never worked for Biglaw in the first place and, instead, developed the broad-based experience and business judgment required to be an independent practitioner.

Don't underestimate the value of the experience which can be gained at SOME small/medium shops, which simply is not available at BigLaw.

I think it is also true that most attorneys, once established, would never consider making a lateral move to BigLaw. Many would see the suggestion as a bit of a joke, because of everything they would have to give up. Once you get out into the courthouse, it is pretty apparent that most 'real' attorneys and judges have marginal respect for lawyers at BigLaw, which is a stigma once you get outside the ivory pillars of your firm letterhead. The best lawyers at BigLaw have good reputations for all the right reasons. Most everyone else lives in a a bit of a fantasy land, thinking that everyone looks at them in the same way they see themselves when they look in the restroom mirror, on a potty break, while otherwise holed up in the trappings of their big fancy firm churning hours.

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