The Advantages of Small Firms

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By Dan Portnov

As advice-givers, lawyers are prolific. Everyone seems to have their war stories, their career development tales, and their many lessons learned along the way. I am no different. And having made a few stops in my journey, one lesson I have been fortunate to learn is how great working at a small firm can be (shout out to KM).

Now, working at a big firm can be fun, lucrative and very good training, so I’m not advising anyone to eschew large firms. But I would like to point out several of the advantages and dispel some misconceptions about small firms.

  1. Conflicts Are Less of a Problem

Small firms have fewer lawyers (duh). Fewer lawyers means less chance that someone in the firm has represented a client that is/was/will be adverse to that new client you are trying to bring in. So there are fewer conflicts that preclude representations—and fewer rainmakers who automatically veto any representation that could pose a problem for their top clients.

Additionally, small firms don’t have the representational aspirations of large firms. Every AmLaw 100 firm either represents or wants to represent a large financial institution like JP Morgan. Even if they aren’t currently pitching for business, they still will not take on a representation—no matter how just or interesting or novel—that may rub a financial or tech behemoth the wrong way in the future.

  1. New and Different Practice Areas

Small firms often (but not always) have lower costs and overhead. Lower costs and overhead mean lower retainer requirements and fees, which enable these firms to take on matters that large firms wouldn’t even sniff.

Case in point: an OIG investigations practice. OIG investigations are, unfortunately, common in the Washington, D.C. area and often ensnare federal employees and contractors. (We recently wrote an e-book about this. Check it out!) For these individuals, representation can make a career-changing difference. While large firms are out of the question for many individuals, small firms are often welcome alternatives.

Small firms are often pioneers of new practice areas. For instance, the big firms took years to come around to cryptocurrency and cannabis practices, leaving small firm lawyers to become subject matter experts. Now, whenever most large firms need expertise in these areas, they often poach small firm lawyers.

  1. Learn by Doing v. Formal Training

Lawyers at small firms are thrust into action much quicker. There’s just no room to avoid it. While many big firms have legions of associates who may not have set foot in a courtroom, it’s rare to find junior lawyers at small litigation-based firms who haven’t had meaningful experience in court.

On the flipside, the significant resources of large firms result in robust training programs. Weekly training and exercises for junior and mid-level attorneys are staples at AmLaw 100 firms.

But one facet of training is truly superior at smaller firms: client interaction. Without legions of senior lawyers around, junior lawyers at small firms need to be able to interact with clients early on. Interaction with clients means understanding the needs of clients and building rapport. Thus, the introduction to business development comes earlier. (In my large-firm experiences, I had no clue how to develop business and this was one glaring gap in the associate training programs.)

  1. Better Fit = Happier Lawyers

Small firms do not hire huge summer associate classes, if they hire summer associates at all. To the contrary, small firms are looking for attorneys who have a stronger sense of what they want to do and who they are, and prize fit over credentials. (In a ten person office, jerks are just tougher to avoid.)

When you stack the satisfaction and attrition rates of large firms against smaller firms, there is no competition: lawyers at smaller firms are more content and stay longer.

  1. A Common Misconceptions – Lower Compensation?

Small firms don’t pay on the Cravath scale (or the Simpson scale, or whichever firm has most recently set the standard). However, many boutique firms come close or even blow the big guys out of the water—e.g. Susman Godfrey and Keker Van Nest.

Additionally, when looking at hourly compensation (salary divided by hours worked), small firms that stress balance and quality of life suddenly become much more competitive.

And finally, because they don’t pay according to scale, compensation is open to negotiation. If you prove your legal chops early on, and learn what it takes to build and maintain clients, your comp will rise quickly.

  1. Another Common Misconception – Less Prestige?

While large firms may tout their grand old names and trace their lineage back to the attorney general for George Washington, small firms often feature current superstars with an entrepreneurial streak. Chances are that these firms were started by big firm partners who felt inspired to strike out on their own.

And while the names of these partners may not carry national cachet, often times they are known as top lawyers throughout their city or area. Prestige is measured differently here—the experience and accomplishments of active lawyers, rather than arbitrary indexes meant to goose the Vault.com or AmLaw firm rankings.

  1. But There Are Downsides

As you might predict, not everything is better at a small firm. Less lawyers means less support staff. Sometimes, I have to make my own binders. And, unlike at my first two large firm stops, there is no one at my current firm who keeps track of my CLE deadlines for me.  (I’m not afraid of binders, but I really, really miss the “Attorney Education Coordinator”).

Perks are likely fewer at small firms. Such as summer associate events and lunches. Or free dinner. But often these perks come at a price: repeatedly suffering the company of summer associates or eating a gourmet dinner at your desk while billing.

Manpower is scarce. Small firms will struggle to handle the giant investigations into or multi-year litigations between corporate titans. With disparities in size of opposing counsel, some larger firms like to bury their adversary in documents or discovery requests—sometimes doing so successfully.

There are attorneys who value such amenities above all and, unsurprisingly, they might fit in better at a larger firm.

*          *          *

Careers are funny things. They rarely turn out as planned. When I came out of law school to a large firm, I didn’t think there was any other path for me. Now, having bounced between firms and government, I’ve grown to appreciate the independence, quality and entrepreneurship of the small firm I’ve called home for three years. And I couldn’t imagine myself ever going back to big law.

If I’ve convinced you that small firms are great, note that Kropf Moseley is hiring

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