Should I Move from Big Law to a Small Firm? - Martindale-Avvo

Should I Move from Big Law to a Small Firm?

Lawyers have to weigh many considerations during their hopefully-long careers. One of the most salient is the choice between working for a big law firm and a small one. Those who are already clocking in days at a big firm might wonder whether it’s the right time to scale down or move to a small practice. 

Think about money, work-life balance, the nature of your legal practice, among other changes that might occur if you make the switch. 

Pros of moving from big law to a small firm

If you’re thinking about leaving your big law firm role to start a new practice with a small firm, you might already be thinking of the potential benefits. Here are just a few that might attract you to this proposition.

More file involvement

Attorneys at a small firm are far more likely to have involvement in all aspects of a file. Unlike in a big firm where their work might go through layers of review, at a small firm they have the opportunity to take the lead on cases. That’s because small firms simply don’t have the personnel to segment cases by area of law or aspect of legal service.

Client-facing responsibilities

Going with more file involvement is an acceleration to client-facing responsibilities. Associates at small firms don’t have to wait years before they are in the room with clients, learning about their needs and advising them on their legal issues. In a small firm, they get the chance to do this sooner, especially as the firm grows and brings in more business. 

Collegial atmosphere

Big law firms are known for their cutthroat environment. But small firms are often more collegial. It’s not unusual for a partner to chat casually with an associate. All members of the legal practice team can get to know one another and to exchange advice and opinions about a case or the practice as a whole.

Knowing firm leadership

In a large firm where there are hundreds of associates, many young lawyers don’t know the people in charge of the firm. That can make it hard to advance, since associates are in constant competition with one another to get to the next stage. They also might not have a clear sense of how the firm leadership is making decisions about the firm. 

In a small firm, associates know the partners and can often discuss strategies for growing the firm. 

Work-life balance

Lawyers at a small firm will work long hours just like in a big firm, but the expectations about availability might be different. It is perhaps less common in a small firm to have to respond to a question from a senior lawyer late in the evening when you’ve left the office. Most issues can wait until the next day. 

Even if hours are still long in a small firm, the fact that lawyers are doing more meaningful work and getting involved in all aspects of a file can make the hours more fulfilling. 

Cons of moving from big law to a small firm

Along with the pros of leaving big law are the cons. As you hesitate to make this leap, you might be thinking about what you might be giving up. Let’s review some of the big potential downsides of leaving your large law firm for a smaller practice. 

Lower pay

Large firms have big clients who bill a lot of hours. The money in big firms tends to be much better than in small firms. Moving from a big firm to a small one can mean a pay cut of tens of thousands of dollars a year. For an associate who has become accustomed to the higher salary, this pay cut can be painful, especially if they are still paying off debt from years of university education. 

Making the move might mean preparing financially some time beforehand by reducing one’s household budget and modifying future financial plans. 

Less mentorship

One benefit of large law firms is the flipside of its downside: the hierarchy that prevents associates from getting involved right away in all aspects of files also allows for a mentorship program. Associates can therefore learn longer and more in-depth from senior lawyers than at a small firm, where they’re often thrown into the deep end much more quickly. 

Some lawyers appreciate having this ongoing mentorship under which they can hone their legal skills.

Lower prestige

There’s tremendous clout that comes with joining a big firm. If you’ve spent a few years at a big firm, it’s probably easier to move out of that environment than the other way around

Once you’ve made the switch to a smaller practice, it might be more difficult to develop your individual reputation as a lawyer. If you want a partnership, getting one at a small firm might come with less prestige than at a large one. 

Fewer resources

Large firms have staff and resources, which are incredibly important during litigation and other research-heavy cases. A large firm might have its own library and database access along with researchers, legal assistants, and investigators who can do a lot of the heavy lifting. 

If you move to a small firm, you’ll be more likely to take on this work yourself.

Sacrificing your investment

Putting in those long hours as a cog in the big firm machine comes with a potential payoff: after a few years, you see the path to partnership and higher salary become clearer. If you choose to leave after putting in those first few years, you are in essence giving up the work you’ve done toward that particular goal. You might have a sense that you’re leaving just short of grabbing the brass ring at a big firm. 

Make the choice that’s best for your career

If you make the leap to a small firm, you have options to grow your business. Work with your new small firm colleagues to grow the practice to new heights. 

Martindale-Avvo can give you marketing tools to help move the firm forward. Contact us today to see how we can help you.

Check out our sister article, Should I Move from a Small Firm to Big Law?

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