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An Overview of Different Organizations with One- or Two-Attorney Practices

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Law offices with one or two attorneys have largely gone the way of general practice physicians (the ones who used to make house calls, remember?). Certainly in the areas of general corporate law, financing law, and large litigation, an individual attorney cannot hope to compete with a large firm the cost of the support equipment and staff is prohibitive. But apart from such areas of practice, an attorney who is able to build up a clientele (or take over an existing clientele from a retiring attorney) can establish a successful practice. Don't count on a huge income, and don't expect the hours to be shorter. Solo lawyers work very hard, and because their clients are usually working people, conferences are often held at night and on weekends. Moreover, if you're the only one running the show, vacations present obvious problems. Solo practitioners who specialize in litigation also find themselves spending much time doing non-productive (and, therefore, non-revenue-producing) tasks, such as sitting around the courthouse waiting for calendar calls.
Click Here to Read BCG Attorney Search’s Guide to Corporate and Finance Job Search Categories for More Information.

An Overview of Different Organizations with One- or Two-Attorney Practices

Still many people are quite attracted to the notion of having their own practice, and 1 do know of several young attorneys who, after a few years of practice with a large firm, begged or borrowed money to hang out their shingle. They specialize in landlord-tenant law, residential real estate, immigration law, and divorces. After a brief period of struggle, they now have solid client bases and, although they don't entertain at Maxim's or Lutece, have sufficient job satisfaction so that they consider themselves more than adequately compensated.

Government Law Practice

Federal, state, and city governments hire many attorneys. The most visible of these are, of course, the prosecuting attorneys who represent the state or federal government in criminal actions. Probably nowhere wiU you get as much trial experience as quickly as by prosecuting criminal cases.

These lawyers (called "state's attorneys," "district attorneys," or "attorneys general") usually have their choice of specializing in trials or appellate argument (see Appendix One for a discussion of the distinction).

The drawbacks? Money is one. This year, assistant district attorneys (ADAs), the starting position in Manhattan for prosecutors, earned salaries of $30,000 a year ($31,000 upon admission to the bar). That is roughly what a good, experienced legal secretary in the Big Apple might make. There is also a "bum-out factor" among these lawyers. Beyond a certain time, usually four or five years, the rewards and learning benefits are outweighed by the low income and lack of variety in the job. Finally, prosecuting jobs are extremely competitive.

Recently, the Manhattan district attorney's office received 2,700 applications for 60 openings. And many of those seeking the jobs were top graduates from prestige schools. The state's attorney's office and the U.S. attorney's office are not limited to handling criminal cases. They, along with attorneys working for specialized agencies in the state and federal system, also handle civil suits involving the government as a party.

For instance, a contractor enters a contract with the state to build a road, but doesn't complete the job on time. The state—just like any individual or business—can sue for this breach. But this isn't a criminal matter; it's a civil lawsuit, and the state will be represented by one of its own attorneys in this action.

To give you an idea of the variety of governmental legal jobs and how they relate to individual functions of government, consider these departments in which you, a young attorney, seeking a job with New York State, might practice:
  • criminal prosecution
  • civil rights
  • antitrust
  • consumer fraud protection
  • general litigation
  • trusts and estates
  • labour
  • mental hygiene

In addition to these you might choose the legal office of a specific agency of the state: the Department of Taxation and Finance, the Environmental Conservation Department, the Secretary of State's office, or the Department of Insurance.


All large corporations and many small ones employ attorneys in their corporate legal departments, supervised by the company's general counsel, or chief attorney. The rising cost of outside legal services (remember that $400-an-hour figure?) and the fact that much corporate law is straight forward have led to the recent growth of such departments. In companies with small legal departments the legal staff serves as liaison between the company's executives and the outside law firm and does the simpler legal work. In large departments, the corporate attorneys do the bulk of the company's legal work and rely on outside counsel only for specialties—antitrust matters, tender offers, bond offers, stock issuances, and large litigation.

In-house attorneys, as they are called, are well paid—they earn less than Wall Street lawyers, but receive more in perks: stock options, profit sharing plans, and retirement plans. In-house counsel jobs are also good springboards from which to move into management of the corporation itself

The major problem with this type of practice is that it can be dreadfully routine; the good, challenging work gets farmed out to firms. There will also be fewer opportunities to go to court. And, if you go directly from school to a corporation, you will be less professionally mobile than if you first work in a law firm. In other words, it is difficult to go from a corporation to a prestige firm, but easy to do the opposite. (It is, in fact, quite common for associates who are not chosen to be partners to leave their firms and take a job with a corporation client they had been representing.)

A final disadvantage is that legal departments in corporations are structured on the pyramid principle. There is one boss—the general counsel. If you are ambitious, you're going to find yourself standing in line with maybe 30 other ambitious, talented lawyers, waiting for that job to open up. A law firm, on the other hand, can simply grow to accommodate new partners.

Public Service

By public service I don't mean politics, but rather a legal career with a non-profit organization or other group dedicated to the benefit of the public or a particular segment of society.

Some of these organizations have a specific purpose other than providing legal services for their members (e.g., the NAACP or Planned Parenthood). Others function solely as a mechanism to provide legal help to those who need but can't afford it (such as the Legal Aid Society).

To give you an idea of what public interest law is, consider the New York Legal Aid Society, which employs hundreds of full-time attorneys. Examples of the services provided to more than 200,000 persons each year are the following: class-action suits contesting the failure of city agencies to provide the poor with adequate emergency housing and assistance in locating permanent housing, child custody cases, challenges to the denial of social services and benefits, consumer protection litigation, and defending indigents accused of crimes.

The pros and cons of these jobs are obvious: superb experience (in a recent year, each Criminal Division Legal Aid lawyer handled about 400 cases!) and the spiritual rewards of working for a cause that you believe in. The negatives are the low pay and the limited potential these jobs have as long-term careers.

You should also be aware of a couple other aspects of these jobs, one bad and one good. First, they're not easy to come by. Even in Manhattan, where overhead is as high as in any city in the country, young lawyers—many of them top graduates from prestige schools—are standing in line for such jobs.

Funding cutbacks have hit public service legal programs particularly hard. Second, on a more positive note, although the work may sound unimportant, public service attorneys have traditionally been on the cutting edge of making major changes in American society. Often, it is not a Wall Street firm but a young public service attorney who takes on a case that redefines the U.S. Constitution and safeguards personal freedoms. It is entirely conceivable that even as a newly admitted attorney you might find yourself arguing a case before the Supreme Court, an honor very few Wall Street partners have had.

Keep in mind that if you're a public-spirited sort but find a public service career financially beyond your means, all large firms offer their attorneys a chance to take on cases of a "pro bono" nature (from the Latin pro bono publico—"for the public good"). These are, in effect, charity cases taken on by firms for free. (Don't worry—you'll still get your paycheck; the law firm foots the bill!)

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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