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The Small Law Firm Market: Considerations and Job Search Strategies, Contributed by Mona D. Elchahal, University of Houston Law Center

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Every year, law school graduates across the country choose to work at small to midsize law firms. What did they do to get such a position? They likely considered the characteristics valued by small firms and utilized these in their small firm job search. Opportunities in the small firm market are less likely to be publicized often, requiring greater initiative and perseverance on the part of the job seeker. There tends to be less statistical reporting, fewer blog posts, and generally less available information regarding small firms and therefore it is necessary to have a well-planned job search strategy.

At the University of Houston Law Center, we have seen an increase in the number of students joining small to midsize firms over the last few years. Our guidance, as well as student feedback, provides the basis for the following discussion. Local markets across the country vary, but the following considerations and strategies should be applicable for students seeking small firm jobs in any location.

PRACTICING AT A SMALL FIRM

What is a “small firm”? As with any law firm, small firms have unique attributes by virtue of their relative size, location, and leadership. There are likely practical differences between small firms in a major city, smaller urban area or a rural area, in terms of culture and hiring practices. For example, small firms in a major city with several feeder law schools are more likely to be attuned to a formal hiring process, e.g., they routinely post positions with area schools’ career development offices or in the city bar journal.

Actual sizes of small firms may vary depending on whom you are asking. For purposes of this article, small firm will be defined as a firm with 50 or fewer lawyers, as we find that the job search strategy is similar for such firms.

Keeping in mind the differences among small firms on account of location and relative size, the following considerations are relevant in thinking about your interest in the small firm market. Assessing these characteristics will help you in formulating your job search strategy.

Type of Work and Client. Lawyers in small firms typically represent more individuals and privately held businesses than large corporate clients. In a rural small firm, the work tends to be more varied and encompass a broad spectrum of practice areas. A local general practice might handle civil, criminal, family, real estate, small business, and other matters. An exception is the boutique small firm that focuses on a niche area of the law. A boutique firm will often provide sophisticated, specialized legal services in a complex practice area. In general, lawyers at larger firms are more likely to specialize in a particular practice group.

Collegiality. In the best-case scenario, a small firm is more collegial, less hierarchical, and less departmentalized than its large firm counterpart. Working in a close-knit environment can lend itself to more frequent interactions between professionals unified by a common purpose. Also, there is the idea that lawyers in small firms “stick together” in order to enhance their collective strength against larger groups. It is important to assess a firm’s collegiality on a case-by-case basis, try to learn about the firm’s reputation in the community and, if you interview, pay attention to the dynamic among lawyers and staff.

Mentors. An associate might work with one partner or a small number of partners―it depends on the firm’s size and organization. You should consider how many lawyers you want to work with and whether learning from different styles is important to you. Beyond exposure, consider personality. In a large firm, there are more choices for partners and associates alike, and hence opportunities for lawyers to pair up with whom they like and work well. In a small firm, it might not be possible to avoid working together. Think about your personality and the culture of the firm and its lawyers in assessing whether a particular firm could be a good fit.

Level of Responsibility and Client Contact. Entry-level associates at small firms often have a greater level of responsibility and autonomy than at large firms, perhaps with minimal training. You could be expected to handle a hearing or meeting or brief by yourself. You could also have the opportunity for significant client contact depending on the firm’s type of work. Lawyers differ in how they delegate work, but at some point before you join a small firm, you should make sure you understand the probable extent of your responsibilities and your enjoyment of the same.

Salary. Small firms tend to have more modest salaries than large firms. You should consider the firm’s billable hour requirements, benefits package, whether they reward performance with bonuses, and other personal factors that affect the “value” of the position. Salaries can vary according to geographic location, practice area, and other factors. There is less statistical reporting regarding salaries at small firms compared to large firms, but your career development office should be able to provide some guidance for your region.

Overall Fit. Although grades are considered in hiring decisions, small firms tend to pay more attention to whether a candidate is overall a “good fit.” Lawyers at small firms are more likely to assess a candidate’s interpersonal skills, maturity, work ethic, practical experience, and enthusiasm for their firm. Fit is especially important in small firms because, as mentioned above, everyone is more likely to work together. Try to learn about the firm’s reputation, culture, and lawyers by talking to upperclassmen and recent alums practicing in similar areas.

There is much variety across local markets and different areas of practice, so the next step is learning about firms in your desired location through research and networking with local attorneys.

THE SMALL FIRM JOB SEARCH

Small firms are less likely to be in a position to forecast their hiring needs in advance and to have a formal recruiting department because of their size. They tend to hire when they have a need rather than pursuant to any regular schedule as is the general case with large firms and may not participate in on-campus interviews. Small firms might not be actively seeking to recruit a new associate but will consider hiring a strong applicant who shows keen interest in their firm. With regard to timing, students are advised to prepare for a small firm job search throughout the year.

A small firm job search is a job in itself. Taking a comprehensive approach is recommended, including the following:

  1. Applying to job postings through your school’s job bank;
  2. Researching firms and lawyers in your area of interest;
  3. Networking with local lawyers in your area of interest; and
  4. Sending targeted mailings to firms that you have researched or to lawyers with whom you have a networking connection.

— Job Bank  

Your school’s job bank could be a fundamental resource in your small firm job search. Small firms often contact local or regional career development offices to list a position. Applying for a position that is already listed means you have to do less work, and that the firm has an open opportunity. If you are looking for a position, make it a habit to check the job bank on a regular and frequent basis. These postings can be updated often, and it is best to apply early.

— Internet Research  

Internet research requires focus and patience, but the upside is a wealth of information at your disposal. Use a combination of online resources to identify firms of interest, such as:

  1. Martindale-Hubbell. Do a terms and connectors search to locate firms that have practice areas that interest you. Try using a “segment search” option to restrict your search based on firm size, location, or to assist in locating alumni.
  2. Your state bar website. Most state bars have search tools such as “find an attorney.” Choose the advanced search option that allows you to search for attorneys by practice area, location, school affiliation, and other criteria. Once you locate attorneys and their firm affiliation, you can then research them on Martindale or the firm’s website for further information.
  3. LinkedIn. Research attorneys and law firms, as well as network, on LinkedIn. Some law firms have pages with general information about their firm. You can also enter the name of a firm and find current and former employees. You can then begin to build your network by seeing if anyone you know has a contact at the firm, and then request an introduction.
  4. Bar Associations. The substantive law section that you are interested in may have a webpage that includes lists of officers and board members who might be receptive to your contacting them for informational interviews to learn more about their field.

— Networking  

Networking is an essential job search tool, especially in the small firm market because firm recruiting needs and methods might not be as systematic as with large firms. Small firms in particular often depend on personal recommendations and contacts when making interviewing and hiring decisions. Law school is a great time to start developing your network through relationships with judges, employers, professors, family, friends, and others.

Beyond professors and employers during law school, you should strive to make connections with lawyers in the community. Most bar associations have substantive law sections that provide continuing legal education and networking opportunities for attorneys in specific practice areas. Your law school might host CLE programs or alumni gatherings. Attending these events is a great way to discover which firms practice in the areas that interest you and to meet lawyers.

An informational interview is also a great opportunity for you to learn from lawyers practicing in particular fields as well as to build your network. An informational interview is a meeting with a lawyer who does work that interests you. You should not approach an informational interview as a job applicant. Rather, be prepared to ask questions such as:

  • What do you like and dislike about your job?
  • What type of education, training, or personal development did your position require?
  • How did you get involved in your field?

It is often conversations such as these that lead to tips on needs at local firms.

— Targeted Mailings  

Once you have identified firms and lawyers that interest you, you can send a cover letter expressing such interest, including any connection you have to the firm such as a referral from another attorney. Plan to follow-up with a phone call after two weeks. Also, consider keeping a spreadsheet with a target list of firms and lawyers based upon location, practice, size, and perhaps law school or college attended. You can use the spreadsheet to keep track of contact information, correspondence and applications, jobs, interviews, etc.

***

Good luck with your small firm job search!

Mona D. Elchahal is a Career Specialist at the University of Houston Law Center. She graduated magna cum laude from Southern Methodist University with a B.S. in Economics and a B.A. in History, and she earned her J.D. at SMU Dedman School of Law and her LL.M. in Taxation from New York University School of Law. She practiced tax and estate planning law prior to joining the Career Development Office and is a member of the State Bar of Texas, the State Bar of Oklahoma, and the Houston Bar Association.  

Disclaimer  

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