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Considering Leaving My AmLaw Firm for a Smaller One – What Should I Do?

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Question:

As a fifth year associate, I am considering leaving my AmLaw firm in a major city for a much smaller firm in a smaller city. My pay would be cut in half, but they would contemplate making me partner in the next few years. What are the pros and cons?

 
Should you leave your current firm to join a smaller one?

Answer:

Money isn’t everything. Here are some things to consider.
 
  1.  It can be difficult to make equity partner in a large firm in major city.

    If you are a fifth year associate, you need to be thinking long-term, and partnership potential is key. An attorney who is becoming more senior needs to think about ability to cultivate business, and seek opportunities that will allow that to happen. If a firm is looking at you as a future partner, that can be worth more than a higher salary. This is because once you become an equity partner, you will be able to cultivate your own client base, and that will make you worth much more in the long run. You may not get this opportunity as a junior partner at a large firm, where institutional clients are closely guarded. And while you might make a higher salary as a partner with no business at a large firm, you are never recession-proof unless you have your own clients. I saw many “service“ partners (those who serviced other people’s clients their entire career) laid off during the downturn, and they were unmarketable. Only those who had their own business were left standing.
     
  2. Your quality of life and work may improve in a smaller firm, and in a smaller city.

    While large firms offer many wonderful benefits, a smaller firm tends to be more personally accountable to the people who work there. Small firms accept that they need to take each attorney as an individual, and deal with each personality and the needs of each attorney. They are more likely to work around your personal needs, and adapt as those needs change. Not necessarily so in larger firms, where attorneys are often expected to adapt to the firm’s culture.

    You might find that the work also improves. Going to a smaller city, you might not get the enormous multinational clients of a large firm. However, you will probably be working at a higher level, and therefore the work may be more interesting because you will have more direct responsibility over it.
     
  3. Being in a smaller city will give you opportunities to cultivate business that you may not have in a large firm in a major market.

    A smaller market means a tighter business community. You may be focused on local and regional clients, and that means getting out there and meeting the business community personally. There is much more social effort involved in smaller communities, but the relationships are also more personal than those built between large firm partners and multinational corporations, who rarely see each other. As an added bonus, because you build a close relationship with your clients, they are more likely to follow you if you ever leave your firm, making your book of business portable and very solid, and increasing your personal worth. Having your own solid clientele is really the only way to control your career as an attorney.
     
  4. If you are in a volatile practice area, a large firm may lay a senior person off during a downturn more readily than a smaller firm might. 

    Senior associates and non-equity partners are expensive. During the downturn, I saw many of them cut for this reason. After all, why would a large firm keep a 10th year attorney on when a 5th year can do the same work? By contrast, smaller firms are more likely to lay off junior people during a downturn. They tend to keep the people who can do all the work, and cut the ones who still need some training. This is a significant difference between larger and smaller firms. 

    In sum, although large firm may offer an excellent salary now, you may actually be worth more and have control over your career if you go to a smaller firm. It may seem tempting to stay in a large firm that appears to have endless work to feed you, but this is not always the best course, as the downturn proved. Opportunities to make equity partner and cultivate business can be golden ones, even if they pay far less on the front end.

See the following articles for more information:
 


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