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.