Published: Jun 19, 2009
Getting Back in the Game: The Rise of the Small Law Firm (Pt. 2)
As the golden-tressed Marcia Brady of the legal industry, BigLaw has always hogged the spotlight. (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” Pout, stamp foot.) But Jan Brady syndrome begone: The second session of the New York City Bar Association symposium on the changing legal terrain underscored the reality that smaller players do matter, and have always mattered.
As notable panelists—Paul Lippe, founder of Legal On-Ramp; Corin Lindsley, managing director of legal search firm Major Lindsey & Africa; and Ron Geffner, managing director of Lilliputian powerhouse Sadis & Goldberg—pointed out, firm size and prestige are hardly correlated. Nor does size have direct relation to depth of expertise. And, as Geffner underscored, small firms are not necessarily the low cost provider.
So who are the smaller players and why are they rising?
As Lindsley described it, some may be spinoffs, specialized outfits founded by star partners. Others may be firms that took off when their top clients did, riding their coattails and following the same trajectory. Others could be collectives of lawyers from expert agencies or institutions—e.g., FDA specialists. The appeal of such firms, and not just for chomping-at-the-bit rainmakers, is myriad. For one, such firms can offer greater chance for client contact, and greater personal relation to outcome. Smaller firms generally staff leanly, or may function as outside counsel to entrepreneurial firms, thus offering their lawyers hands-on learning opportunities in the business itself. For clients, such firms can offer greater flexibility, commitment and sensitivity to client needs.
That said, Lindsley cautions that casting a wider net to include smaller or lesser-known firms should be a very conscious, and not a default, choice: “Know exactly why you want to include these small firms. Know why the firm is important, understand what their business is, who the key players in the firm are. Then pursue these opportunities with enthusiasm, and be genuinely excited about the choice.”Geffner also advised jobseekers to be ruthlessly rational: “No matter what goes on, there is a way for every lawyer to earn a living… [But] there is no safe haven anywhere. So be honest with yourself—what skills do you have?” As for the standard 10-year plan, Geffner suggests it’s not enough: “Have one-year, three-year, five-year and 10-year goals.” Describing himself as a lifelong and natural-born networker, Geffner stresses that building one’s contact base is not a series of actions; to paraphrase, “It is a way of being. It is not just taking, it’s sharing as well. Be prepared to reach out a helping hand first, and only pursue connections where you have a genuine interest in the person. In some cases the rewards may be direct, but often they will be indirect, so don’t approach networking with the idea that networking is about immediate ‘payoff’ from a particular encounter. That payoff may never come—or it may be exponential, years down the line. Be patient with the seeds you plant.”
We’re under no illusions that this post is the first to address the question of what makes a “good” junior associate (given that a quick Google search will reveal numerous identical-sounding pieces). What makes this post different is the simplicity of our suggestions that can help you from Day One.