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For most of the past decade, law school graduates have been gravitating at an ever-increasing rate to the nation's largest law firms. The trend peaked in 2001, when 42.6 percent of graduates signed on with firms of 101 or more attorneys. Now, with many major firms cutting back on new associate hiring, there are indications that more students are finding their first jobs in small or mid-size firms.
Some graduates have been forced to look toward smaller firms for their first job, but others have made the choice on their own. The reasons range from more challenging assignments to less billable hours pressure, a less stressful lifestyle, geographic necessity or a combination of all those factors.
Jacie Zolna, a 2002 graduate of DePaul University School of Law, is one who made the choice voluntarily. Zolna compiled an impressive academic record in law school and would likely have been welcomed at many large firms, but opted to sign on with the four-attorney Myron M. Cherry & Associates firm in Chicago, where he had worked since his first summer of law school.
"The responsibility I get here is far greater than I would get in a large firm," Zolna said. "I'm not getting bits and pieces of cases here - I get full cases, draft briefs, take depositions, get to run the whole gamut of litigation. I haven't gotten the Bar results back, so I have to have someone sign off on it, but I basically run the whole case," he said.
Zolna and others like him who have intentionally gone the small-to-mid-size-firm route obviously place a high value on the experience they are gaining. According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the median starting salary in firms of two to 10 attorneys in 2001 was $43,000. At firms of 101 or more attorneys, it was $100,000 - $125,000 at firms of 251 or more attorneys.
"There's a trade-off obviously," said Zolna. "At larger firms, they're getting paid more, maybe have more prestige, and have more resources. Here, I'm lawyer, secretary, law clerk and file clerk all in one sometimes. But I really wanted to get good experience right off the bat, and I'm getting a jump start in terms of experience that will help me in my career later on."
As larger firms cut back on new associate hiring, smaller firms are beginning to show up more frequently for on-campus interviewing, and law school career services departments are beginning to court those firms more aggressively on behalf of their grads.
"We've tried to reach out more to smaller and mid-size firms," said Anthony Bastone, assistant dean of career services at the University of Colorado School of Law in Denver. "We're putting together a directory of two- to 10- and 11- to 25-attorney firms in the Denver area and contacting those firms to determine their needs and offer our services on hiring needs and any other concerns. We're taking a very proactive approach."
Marcie Cox, director of career services at the University of Miami (Fla.) Law School sees the same.
"There are definitely a declining number of opportunities at big firms for graduates. We're seeing a greater number of small or mid-size firms on campus."
If the old pattern is indeed changing, it will be a dramatic reversal. First year employment at firms of 101 or more attorneys has increased steadily every year since 1994, going from 24.9 percent of all grads in 1994 to last year's 42.6 percent. All other firm sizes have been in decline for new associate hires, but current economic trends will almost certainly reflect a shift when this year's hiring statistics come out later this year.
One factor directly related to the economy is a decline in corporate law practice, which in turn impacts large law firm hiring.
"Smaller firms tend to do more litigation, as opposed to corporate, which is off right now," said Miami's Cox. "Few small firms do corporate, so they aren't as affected."
This story appeared in the March 2002 edition of The National Jurist, www.nationaljurist.com.
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