When it comes to finding your place in the legal profession, one size definitely does not fit all. Law firms vary widely in size -- from sole proprietors to global behemoths that employ hundreds or even thousands of lawyers. While some legal professionals feel most empowered working for a large organization, others feel more at home working for a smaller boutique firm.
As you explore legal career options, consider what size firm best suits your personality, interests and goals. Here are three pieces of career advice that should help you find a law firm that fits you like a glove:
1. Size up salaries
As you weigh career advice and consider your options for legal careers, compensation is probably at the forefront of your mind. Salary levels in the legal profession vary widely, depending on the law firm’s location and -- you guessed it -- its size. For the most part, smaller firms offer lower compensation than larger ones.
According to the Robert Half Legal 2015 Salary Guide, a lawyer with one to three years of experience can earn an average starting salary of between $58,500 and $92,750 at a small firm (up to 10 lawyers) and $68,500 to $107,000 at a small/midsize firm (10 to 35 lawyers). That range jumps to between $89,250 and $126,500 at a midsize law firm (35 to 75 lawyers) and between $119,000 and $156,500 at a large firm (more than 75 lawyers).
Keep in mind that if you have special abilities, such as foreign language skills or expertise in a hot practice area such as litigation, general business/commercial law, healthcare, or intellectual property, you can earn a much higher salary -- even at a smaller firm. No matter what size law firm you choose, salary is usually up for negotiation.
2. Try on different cultures.
For many in the legal profession, company culture is just as important as compensation. If a law firm’s culture doesn’t fit your personality, going to work every day will seem like a bear, no matter how much money you’re earning.
Here, again, size plays a role. Most large firms feature a formal “big law” culture. Think more defined processes and procedures, a stricter dress code and multiple layers of management. That type of atmosphere can be very appealing to lawyers who seek structure. The culture can be competitive, though, especially if the firm handles high-profile work.
By contrast, smaller firms often offer a more casual atmosphere with a closer-knit staff. Because small firms have fewer layers of management, they typically have less red tape for you to wade through. That can be good and bad. On one hand, that means there is generally more room for risk-taking and upward mobility. On the other hand, there’s less direction and oversight from firm leaders.
Of course, not all small and large firms fit neatly into these categories. Regardless of size, every corporate culture is unique. To determine if a firm is the right fit for you, pay special attention to the organization’s culture during the job interview process. Take special notice of how lawyers interact with each other (and you), how they dress, what the workspaces look like, and other similar factors. Do you overhear friendly chit-chat in the hall, or does everyone seem rushed and stressed? Does there seem to be a healthy camaraderie among the firm’s lawyers, or do they keep their heads down? In general, are people happy to be there?
Lastly, talk to members of your network who work for different size firms and ask what they like or dislike about their work cultures. What career advice can they offer when it comes to firm size? Their candid feedback and insight can be invaluable.
3. Measure your expectations
Before you decide if you want to work for a small law firm or a large one, take stock of your career expectations and long-term goals. For example, do you prefer to work on high-level, complex litigation and transactional legal work? If so, a large firm is probably the ideal fit for you as high-end casework is the bulk of what large firms handle. On the other hand, if you dream of working directly with clients and taking on a wide variety of cases, a smaller firm is probably your best bet.
Also, consider how much you thrive on competition. Large firms are often much more competitive, with more attorneys vying for assignments and promotions. On the other hand, legal professionals at smaller firms face less in-house competition and are more likely to get the cases they want.
Confucius offered some sage career advice when he said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Oftentimes, the size of a law firm is the determining factor as to whether you truly love your job — which is why it’s crucial to find the right fit.
In your opinion, do large or small law firms offer the best legal careers? Share your career advice in the comment section below.