Law Firm Life Outside the Biglaw Mothership

BY ROB FRIEDMAN

Choosing where to work after law school is a daunting task. Even if you focus only on private law firms, the choices seem endless. Many students pare their list by focusing on the largest firms in New York, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Believe it or not, there is life outside of the huge Biglaw offices in major cities. Consider these alternate universes:

Satellite Offices Of Big Firms

The main criticism of satellite offices is that associates away from the mothership are at a disadvantage in landing plum assignments and climbing the partnership ladder. The concern is well-founded, as lawyers at some satellite offices are considered second-class citizens within their own firm. If you go the satellite office route, you will need to pay particular attention to networking within your firm so that you are not overlooked by the powers that be.

But with this extra work comes opportunities as well. An independent and profitable satellite office can provide a nurturing environment for young lawyers. A satellite office in New York of a firm based in Cleveland, for example, likely will have a culture that is more subdued than New York-based firms, particularly if the office is full of lateral hires and attorneys who transferred from other offices.

Office culture is key, and it is very difficult to get a handle on. Offices in different cities of the same firm can differ substantially, particularly if the firm was put together through a series of mergers. Try to get honest assessments from classmates and current associates about the particular culture of a satellite office you are considering. If you can identify a good fit, you might find just what you are looking for in an unlikely place.

Small-Market Hubs Of Big Firms

A slight spin on the idea above is that many large firms house their nerve centers in relatively small markets. These regional firms became national and international juggernauts by swallowing up other regional firms and offices. Although their profit centers may now be in New York, and their big names may be in Washington, key decisions are still be made from the office where the managing partner keeps his toothbrush.Some of these firms have retained their regional firm culture, and associates can find a more manageable practice in a smaller market without giving up the benefits of Biglaw (not to mention a fantastic cost-of-living ratio). Again, careful attention to office culture is critical. A small-market main office that has adopted a New York mentality will get you the worst of both worlds.

Regional Firms

A regional firm may not be well known outside of its state or area of the country. It also may not participate in on-campus interviews. But for students who prefer a mid-sized firm, and like being a big fish in a small pond, regional firms can be a good fit. Individualized training and client contact opportunities tend to be better in smaller firms, and there is less chance you will be lost among the trees.

Although an office of 50 or 100 lawyers may seem small compared to Biglaw cribs, such an office in a relatively small market can be a local powerhouse. Just make sure the region is strong financially, and the client base is diverse. A regional firm that relies on work from one industry or a small number of clients is vulnerable to local economic conditions.

Plaintiffs’ Firms

Plaintiffs’ firms are not easy to break into as a first-year associate, as they typically do not have a summer program and bring in talent laterally. Most HLS grads never even consider plaintiffs’ firms until much later in their careers. But for students who have a passion for litigation, enjoy a feet-to-the-fire approach to training, and hate the idea of billing in six minute intervals (who doesn’t?), a top-notch plaintiffs’ firm is worth a look. Downsides: expect lower base pay, uncertain bonuses, and an eat-what-you-kill mentality that filters down to the associate level.

Not ready to jump onto the left side of the “v”? Consider large firms that have significant plaintiff-side work. Many big firms with a bent towards high-stakes commercial litigation have teams that specialize in plaintiff-side work in areas such as antitrust, intellectual property, and insurance coverage. You can get your fill of plaintiff and defense-side work at these firms and then pick your poison.

Thinking About Geography

One of the main goals of choosing a “non-traditional” law firm path is to find a place where you can see yourself practicing and living in the long run. HLS tends to pluck smart people from all over and then funnel them into a few big cities. Although it may be exciting to start your career in a big city in which you have never lived, consider where you want to be in 5-10 years. Many lawyers wind up relocating to smaller locales, in particular places close to where they grew up or where their relatives and friends live. Consider where you want to raise a family. If not New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, then why not start in Cleveland or Minneapolis or West Palm Beach?

Rob Friedman ’98, a former RECORD editor, is an insurance coverage litigator in the West Palm Beach, FL office of the law firm Gunster Yoakley.

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