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Law Firm Culture: Which Type of Law Firm Offers the Best Work Environment for Attorneys?

published October 04, 2019

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Whether you’re looking to land your first job as a lawyer after passing the bar, or you’re an experienced lawyer seeking a professional change, finding a new position can be an overwhelming journey. If you have little to no experience as a lawyer, you may not have any idea about the differences between working environments and cultures found in various law firm configurations. Maybe you have a general idea of what you’d like to do and the work environment you believe is ideal for you, but a little extra research couldn’t hurt as you search through attorney jobs. If you’re a seasoned veteran of the legal profession, maybe you’re looking to completely change your working environment, your practice area, and maybe bring a little more work-life balance into the equation. 
 
Law Firm Culture: Which Type of Law Firm Offers the Best Work Environment for Attorneys?
 
Regardless of the reason why you’re looking for a job as a lawyer, firm culture is
an important concept. You’ll spend a lot of time at work. It’s important that you’re comfortable. Before we explore the different types of law firms and the culture of each, we want to answer one burning question. Is it hard to find work as a lawyer? 

 
Is It Hard to Find Work as a Lawyer? 
 
Finding the right job opportunity as a lawyer can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The “hard” part is dealing primarily with the intimidation from not knowing how to begin the attorney job search process. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook between 2018 and 2028 states that the legal industry is expected to grow by six percent. 
 
Of course, with the changes in technology over the last several years and those that are sure to occur in the future, competition for lawyer job openings will certainly increase. It’s important to consider not just what you want to do as a lawyer, but also consider the ways that you can improve your interpersonal, professional, and technological skills to increase your odds of finding the right job. This may include attending CLEs, legal conferences, or attending networking events to help you become a better communicator, a better law firm manager (even if you never plan to operate one), and improve your skills with some of the most common legal tech tools on the market. It’s also important to understand the current best practices of activities such as e-filing, e-discovery, and even ethical considerations such as the ethical limits in your jurisdiction regarding “friending” or “following” clients, witnesses, and the likes on social media platforms. Ensuring your skills are up-to-date will make finding a new attorney job easier and less intimidating.
 
What Are the Different Ways in Which Law Offices Are Structured? 
 
Law firms can be structured in several different ways. However, each main structure of law firm has its own culture and provides a unique environment. 
 
Solo law office. A solo law office is owned and operated usually by one attorney. It may employ more attorneys and support staff, but the solo law office only has one partner. Solo practices may focus on a variety of practice areas or could specialize in only one area of the law. Client matters are relatively smaller matters, and the firm could have only one or two clients that provide consistent work. Attorneys at solo practices are often compensated based on experience. Generally, a solo law office hires on an as-needed basis, and the solo practice may hire newly licensed attorneys on up to senior associates.
 
One nice feature of accepting a job as a lawyer in a solo law office is the atmosphere. Generally, the entire office (including support staff) is a close-knit group. There still may be a standard number of billable hours you’re expected to meet, but the environment is often more laid back than that of BigLaw. Many solo law practices may also be open to the idea of remote work and may provide more of a work/life balance. Since the culture of solo law firms is more relaxed, it’s likely that management policies aren’t quite as intricate as those found in bigger law firms. Solo practices also generally provide the opportunity for more hands-on work and greater responsibility for attorneys at an early stage in their careers compared to larger law firms.
 
There are some things about solo law firms that may not make you happy. The solo practice may not have enough support staff. Of course, in a solo law firm that has only one or two attorneys, one paralegal or legal assistant may be sufficient depending on the caseload. There may or may not be a dedicated file clerk, receptionist, docket clerk, or billing clerk. If there is only one or two support staff, you may find yourself needing to take on other administrative, non-billable activities. There are also generally fewer opportunities for professional growth in a solo practice, and future partnership may not be a possibility.
 
Some solo law firms may share space with other businesses or law firms. There may be some shared resources, such as office equipment, break rooms, or even the receptionist. This could be inconvenient but may also provide access to an increased number of prospective clients to which you’ll have potential access. 
 
Boutique law firm. A boutique law firm is a relatively small law firm specializing in a niche area of law. Boutiques are similar to solo law offices in several ways. They generally employ a small number of attorneys who are experienced in one area of the law, and the staff and attorneys in a boutique law firm often form close relationships. Boutique law firms may hire either associate-level or senior attorneys, and boutiques are generally formed by two or more partners. Boutique law firms typically hire on an as-needed basis, and the best boutiques may have very few openings each year.
 
Boutique law firms have a culture that tends to mirror that of their managing partners. Due to their small size, boutique law firms may offer a less diverse environment than a larger law firm. Boutique law firms are often formed by well-qualified attorneys who leave BigLaw to start their own firms. Because of this, they may have strict hiring criteria and sophisticated clients. With this generally comes higher compensation which is often market-rate and on par with BigLaw. Boutiques also provide more growth opportunities for their associates.
 
Although boutique law firms are attractive to many attorneys because of their small size, there are some things you should consider. Since boutique law firms generally specialize in one main area of the law, you will not gain exposure to a broad range of practice areas. This could limit your future opportunities should you decide to leave the boutique firm. Also, boutique firms usually do not have a lockstep compensation system, so your pay is not guaranteed to increase with seniority.
 
Mid-size law firm. A mid-size law firm may have around 75 lawyers, but could be smaller or larger depending on the city and legal market. Mid-size firms are often regional firms, with more than one office location in a particular region of the U.S., such as the Midwest or East Coast. A mid-size law firm offers some of the same advantages as large law firms, but just on a more limited scale. They tend to hire both associates and experienced attorneys in a range of practice areas and may be specialized or offer their clients representation in everything from litigation to corporate work. They generally have sufficient resources and support staff and often attract work from mid-size businesses who need legal services at a reasonable billing rate. These firms may accept rolling applications for associate-level attorneys, but often hire as openings arise. They may hire Of Counsel or Partners and appreciate attorneys who have some amount of portable business.
 
A mid-size law firm often offers associates partnership track, although “making partner” may result in a non-equity partner role. The culture may be more diverse, and the environment may be more formal and structured than smaller law firms. Also, attorneys and staff tend to be less of a “family” since attorneys usually work within practice area group and may not know many of the attorneys at the firm who work in other practice areas.
 
Although mid-size law firms employ more attorneys, finding the right fit remains critical since the attorneys in a mid-size law firm generally work in small groups. The groups may include a couple of junior and mid-size associates, a couple of senior associates, and one partner. If the group relies on work from only one partner, the entire group may be at jeopardy should the partner lose a client or decide to leave the firm. Mid-size firms do have billable hours’ requirements, although the required hours are usually less than that required in BigLaw. Working for a well-respected mid-size firm also makes it easier to transition to another regional firm.
 
Large law firm. A large law firm is generally considered to be Am Law 100 firm or a Tier 1 Chambers ranked firm. The most prestigious large law firms are also referred to as “BigLaw” firms. These law firms often begin hiring attorneys before the attorney finishes law school, and has attorneys at the firm from several graduating class years in junior, mid-level, and senior associate roles. BigLaw firms are constantly looking to recruit top talent and may hire candidates with stellar qualifications even without an immediate opening. Large law firms also offer partnership track to associates, although achieving partnership may prove to be difficult. Large law firms may offer the opportunity to transfer locations, and they have the most resources including better technology and more support staff. Additionally, large law firms have a range of clients in broad industries and generally very sophisticated work.
 
While the pay is higher in large law firms, bonuses could be significant, and compensation is lockstep, large law firms have high billable hours’ requirements that must be met. Attorneys are expected to work long hours and the environment is often very competitive. Success in BigLaw usually comes with diminished work/life balance, and working 12+ hours per day and on weekends may be the norm. However, BigLaw firms offer more diverse cultures and work environments, often prioritizing diversity within their firms and encouraging hiring from various backgrounds. They also come with prestige, superior training and experience, and better credentials for an attorney’s future opportunities. Attorneys in BigLaw firms can often lateral to another large law firm easily at almost any point in their career.
 
Determining the Law Firm Culture Right for You 
 
Happiness and success in your practice as a lawyer largely depends on your work environment. Everyone is different. There are attorneys who thrive in the fast-paced, highly-managed, and competitive BigLaw structure. Some attorneys may prefer the more collegial environments found in mid-size, boutique law firms, or even solo practices. There are advantages and disadvantages of working at each type of law firm, and understanding the basic differences in the environments and cultures will make finding the right fit for your legal practice much easier. Analyze your legal career goals and consider all your options before making your next law firm move.

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