Second-Year Hiring in Small Law Firms

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I've talked a lot about how large and medium-sized firms hire students for their summer programs. But your chances of landing a law firm position are much greater in a small firm than in a large firm, simply because more hiring is being done in small firms than in large ones. Usually the stakes aren't as high, and the credential factor, isn't as big an issue with the small firms, so your chances of getting hired are greater as well.

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Small firms have consistently been the single most important source for graduates entering private practice. Apart from solo practice, only firms of two to ten attorneys have consistently increased their representation in the pool of initial jobs obtained in private practice, according to the National Association for Law Placement. Small firms are the most important source of employment for new law school graduates, especially for those students without stellar academic records from top law schools.

The NALP estimates that almost half of all law firm jobs are now being taken with firms of 25 or fewer attorneys. This is compared to the 3.5 percent of jobs obtained with the largest firms, 501+ attorneys. According to the placement director at one well-known Washington, D.C., law school, half of her students went to work in law firms. Of that 50 percent, 60 percent went to work in small law firms. And that number continues to grow. The "solo," small or solo firm, is becoming a mainstay in the legal placement landscape.

What Small Firms Look for

Unlike their large firm counterparts, small firms lack the resources and the need to plan months or even years in advance for anticipated growth in attorney personnel. Placement directors typically report that small firms hire "all over the map," which makes it difficult to establish a plan for recruiting. Students complain that there is little information available on small firms, which makes their recruiting efforts much more difficult. Many do not have summer programs, and they often wait to hire new graduates until after they take the bar exam. This creates a big dilemma for students-much of the law firm hiring is taking place in small firms, but there is little information available on how to go about getting these positions.

The characteristics and credential set needed to be successful in a small firm are quite different from those needed in large law firm environments. Your internal assessment should indicate which type of environment, large or small, suits your personality type best. Are you happier being a small fish in a big pond (a specialist), or are you happier being a big fish in a little pond, such as in a small law firm environment?

Small firms typically look for flexible, well-rounded individuals who are able to wear many hats and who immediately "fit" into their particular culture. A "do whatever needs to be done" attitude is essential in a smaller environment, where attorneys sometimes have to act as lawyer, administrator, paralegal, courier, receptionist, and so on. There is little need for the "specialist" mentality in a small law firm. You may be a litigator one day and have to write a will and perform a real estate closing the next day. There is also little tolerance for the "spoiler" mentality in a small firm. The difficult personality, who can be tossed to a back office in a larger firm to do research, never to be seen again, has nowhere to hide in a small firm. Getting along with everyone is essential in a small firm environment.

One partner, who had worked in a large firm and now has his own five-attorney firm, stresses the importance of camaraderie in a small firm, noting, "I have two families-my wife and children, and my law firm." Larger firms tend to hire people they like, but that's not as essential as in a small firm. This partner also stresses the importance the staff plays in a small firm. If an associate or summer associate can't get along with the staff, he or she will not last long in a small firm. In more rural areas, where you many find only one or two practitioners in a firm, these factors are magnified.

Small firms also tend to hire for the long term, which isn't as realistic in larger firms. Because smaller firms hire fewer attorneys, they are more careful and have fewer resources to devote to hiring mistakes. They can't afford the turnover rates that are becoming the norm in the big firms. Long-term fit, therefore, is extremely important.

Do the Research

Since the lack of information available on small firms is a universal problem that isn't likely to disappear, you must learn to take the initiative to crack the small firm market. You can't lean too much on your placement office in this effort. Learning to take the initiative is time-consuming, and only with persistence will your endeavors yield satisfactory results. But you have a lot of options. The small firm market, while difficult to get a firm grasp of, is penetrable.

Narrow Your Focus

Your first step in researching small firms is to narrow your focus geographically. You'll probably be more successful if you select an area where you have a previous connection. It's more likely that you'll want to work somewhere that's familiar or where you know someone. Students often return to their hometowns or go to areas where they have friends or relatives. But make sure you select several areas to concentrate on from the very beginning.

Research Your Market in Person

Once you have targeted your location, take the time to go there and spend time researching the law firm market. Since printed information on the small firms is scarce, your next best resource is meeting the attorneys in person and talking to members of the community who are familiar with the local market. The information you need is available, but the best way to retrieve it is through primary research.

Your networking skills are your most useful resource as you search for leads in a small community. Go to the local bar association, the chamber of commerce, and local professional organizations such as the Rotary Club or the Lions Club. Go to the courthouse and talk to the clerk of court, the register of deeds, and so on to find out who the main players are in-the legal community. Getting these individuals' attention over the phone may be difficult, since they wear many hats, so stop by their offices in person. This tactic tends to be better accepted in smaller communities, where people tend, overall, to be friendlier. I may have given the impression that it's inappropriate to take the "sales rep approach" when contacting all firms, since the large firms shun the practice. I encourage you to call on the small firms in person because it's the best way to meet those who have the authority to hire you in this market.

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One student from St. Louis who was in the middle of his class at an average East Coast law school looked up all of the attorneys in St. Louis who had attended his undergraduate school and high school. He used an alumnae directory as well as Martindale-Hubbell, a well-known directory of attorneys that is organized by state, to do his research. His next step was to go to St. Louis and do the rest of his research in person. Using this approach, he obtained a job working 25 hours a week for an attorney who, in fact, attended both of his alma maters.

Other Helpful Hints

Organizing your approach toward small firms is difficult at best, but this is a virtually untapped resource in the legal job market. Use it to your advantage. The following are some additional tips that may assist you in your search:
  1. Network and network some more. Networking and the luck of being at the right place at the right time are the two greatest predictors of success for getting into a small firm. The adage "It's who you know" applies here in full force. If a firm is only hiring one or two people, usually those people are recommended by someone the firm knows and trusts. And simply being lucky has its place in law firm hiring.
  2. Offer to work for free. If you're from a community, where small firms exist in abundance, use personal contacts to get your foot in the door. Over the winter holiday break, contact these firms, and stop by for a visit or informational interview. Offer to work a week or so over the holiday for free to show them what you can do. If you can't afford to work for free for the summer, perhaps you could work for the firm part of the time. At the very least, you may come into contact with other attorneys in the community who may be interested in hiring a new associate in the near future.
  3. Work for Legal Aid or any nonprofit organization in the community. To increase your visibility, do volunteer work for a local nonprofit organization to get noticed by area lawyers. You may have to do this during your first-year summer, over a holiday break, or during the school year if proximity allows. This is also a great way to network and make the connections necessary to land an associate position if you are not already connected. There are always organizations that need free manpower, especially from an aspiring attorney. Besides, you can gain valuable work experience in the process.
  4. Utilize resume drops. A less effective way to get a position in a smaller firm is through a resume drop at your placement office. Small to medium-sized firms often request resumes from schools as an alternative to visiting the campus. Small firms typically recruit from schools in their general area. With this method, however, you're playing a numbers game. And resumes are being reviewed, often, by someone who hires only occasionally, so less obvious traits on a resume may get passed over. Many small firms hire using this method, but the odds are probably not on your side.
  5. Clerk during the school year. Working as a law clerk during the school year is a common practice during the second and third years of law school in many areas. This is an excellent way to gain solid law firm experience and to make contacts in the legal community, especially in small firms. If you have a successful working relationship with a firm after six or eight months and express a strong interest in working for them, your chances of getting a summer job offer may be much greater. Clerking is also an excellent way to gain experience. But clerking can backfire if your experience in the firm is less than good or you do a mediocre job.
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The National Association for Law Placement (NALP)


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