World of Law: Small Firms

BY ANNA BROOK

From left to right

On Tuesday, February 12, students had the opportunity to listen to first-hand advice about working at a small law firm. Four attorneys came to Pound 102 to discuss their work and experiences. The panel was moderated by clinical instructor Stephen Churchill (HLS ’93). The panellists all work at firms ranging from 7 to 28 attorneys.

Two of the panellists started out in big-law firms like many HLS students plan to. Jill Bradford (HLS ’97), an associate at The Feinberg Law Group, LLC in Wellesley, MA, began her career at Foley Hoag. She transitioned to her current firm with several Foley attorneys. Bradford’s current practice involves corporate work, with a specialty in intellectual property. When asked about the ratio of partners to associates at her firm, she had some trouble distinguishing between the two. Bradford cited the collegial atmosphere and informal relationships between attorneys. She stated that she is often asked to check a partner’s work in areas where she is an expert.

Eric Fisher, an associate with Finn, Dixon & Herling, LLP in Stamford, CT, came to the firm from Proskauer Rose. At the larger firm, he felt he was being pigeonholed into labor law, an area in which he did not have a particular interest. At the smaller firm, Fisher said he was able to do a wide variety of work. He specializes in employment law, but has participated in corporate transactions, tax and securities work.

Both Bradford and Fisher were glad for the training they received at large firms that would probably be unavailable in the small firm environment. The two panellists who did not transition from a large firm had a different view of associate training. Nicole Austin-Hillery is an associate at the public interest firm Mehri & Skalet, PLLC in Washington, DC. Her firm cannot afford to hire and train new associates, and so looks for individuals who can start work and “jump right into a case.” As a result, Austin-Hillery recommends spending time at public interest organizations to gain experience.

Andrew Freeman, a partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP, explained that although his firm does not have the luxury of teams of assistants and paralegals to do the work, cases are usually staffed with one partner and one associate. This way, associates get hands-on training in every aspect of the case.

Even without large teams, Freeman finds that his firm is often hired for cases on par with large firms. To increase their capabilities, the firm occasionally partners as co-counsel with large firms. Bradford and Fisher echoed this sentiment, explaining that for very document-heavy cases clients will select another firm, but the quality of the work is comparable to much larger organizations. Austin-Hillery agreed with Freeman, explaining that when there is a public interest case against a large corporation, several firms team up to increase their resources.

Students inquired about the pay and hours expectations at smaller firms. Bradford stated that the flexibility of a small firm allows her to work part time while her children are in school. She doubted such a personalized schedule would be possible at a larger firm.

Fisher’s firm is less than an hour away from New York City and has comparable hours and pay to New York firms. Fisher confessed that he is earning less than associates in New York, but weekends at home and a wider variety of work make up for it. Austin-Hillery stated that the work she does is so enjoyable that she does not think about billable hours. She too is not earning as much as biglaw associates, but her pay is higher than it would have been at other public interest organizations.

To end the panel discussion, students asked whether there is less job security at a small firm and how to go about finding a job at a small firm. The three associates stated that the risks are similar to those at large firms. Bradford pointed out that recently there have been mergers and large firms have dissolved. She did, however, mention that in a small firm, “If someone is in a bad mood, you are more likely to feel the effects of it is a 7 person office.” Freeman confessed that as a partner, there were a few months where he missed a pay period because there was less cash flow than expected. He admitted that this does not happen at large firms, but quickly told the audience not to feel bad for him because other months more than made up for it, “I’m not starving. I drive a BMW, my kids go to a private school.”

As for how to find a job at a small firm – the attorneys suggested doing your homework. The smaller firms generally do not recruit during OCI. Students will have to find them and send out a resume. The best ways are to look at cities and practice areas of interest. Another way is to network and chances are someone can suggest a firm to apply to. With the benefit of OCI, students often overlook smaller firms, but a large firm is not for everyone and the more personal atmosphere of a small firm may be the right choice for many students.

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