Dispelling Three Myths About Big Law vs. Small Law

Well, dear readers, I have been more than lax in posting… my apologies.

A bit of background: I work for one of the “Big Law” firms these days. Up until a few months ago, I worked for a “Small Law” firm. The transition has been interesting for all of the usual reasons (lifestyle, location, etc.), but also for all of the reasons I never considered until I got here.

There are at least three ways in which I was told more than once that a Big Law job was something to fear, almost all of which have turned out to be false so far.

Initial disclosure: This is in now way meant to disparage my old firm (or my new one, though I do not think defending a big law firm would be offensive to said firm). There are just many differences between the theory and the practice between small and large firms. The people I worked with before are simply excellent. They are knowledgeable, honorable, and fantastic lawyers all the way around. The difference has been in the alleged horrors of working in a large firm. Maybe that’s because there are relatively few people who’ve worked in both… I dunno. Anyway…

You work harder in Big Law

I can definitively say that this was not the case in my experience… I worked absolutely as hard in a small law firm as I have in Big Law. That is not to say that working for a bigger firm has not been hard work, but only that it is equally hard. Perhaps I may have had more control over when my day started and stopped, but I worked every bit as hard when I was in a 10-person shop.

I think the real difference lies in the tasks you handle on a given workday in each environment. In a big firm, for example, you are simply able to dedicate more time to the task at hand – generating actual legal product. In a small law firm, by contrast, you get to do all sorts of things that you never thought lawyers did, like trying to set up your own travel, tracking down clients for whom you’ve already done work so that they can pay you, spending umpteen million hours networking while hoping that someone calls you back and needs legal work, faxing your own motions… then checking and rechecking and rechecking to see if your motion was received, talking to a client about a legal question that a friend of a friend of a friend has, etc. NONE of which is billable, by the way. Sure, you have to do some of this in a larger firm too – but, you know what? All of that is actually credited to a certain extent…. which is NICE.

You’re not billing 2,000 hours in a small firm necessarily – but in my experience that is largely a function of the fact that you must do quite a bit more of the ministerial, back-office work than you do in a larger firm with more infrastructure. If you had to do that, and THEN bill 2,000 hours, you’d go cray-cray. I think that the economists would call that an “economy of scale”.

Also, research was tougher in the smaller shop. Got a hearing on a summary motion for removing a mechanic’s lien? You’d better pull out a book and hope it had a good description of what you were supposed to do. Wondering whether you have grounds to file for a directed verdict? Same as above! There was a vast difference between the availability of materials. At the large firm, I have access to a huge (pronounced YUJE!) online library of resources that is updated daily. If that is not enough, I can send an e-mail to our in-house librarian to track down more information from law schools across the country. They will usually deliver me responsive materials within 24 hours. Additionally, there is likely someone here who wrote a law review article on just my issue when they were in law school and can tell me right where to start my research. Again, this framework simply allows me to spend more time on the actual issue itself, rather than laying the foundation to get the work done.

You are more stressed in Big Law

Wrong. In a Big Law environment associates are just that – associates… We associate with the people who do the actual, representative work. We do the grunt work that no partner wants to do (because they’ve already done their stint as an associate) and no client wants to pay a partner to do. What this provides of benefit to associates is that we get to practice law. That means we can screw up and the only person who is going to see it will be the partner we work for. What this provides to the client is (assuming we do not screw up – and we’d better not very often if we want to last) is a price break associated with pushing the work downward. Usually that partner remembers what it was like to be an associate and is understanding – so long as we continue to learn from our mistakes rather than repeat them.

Sure, sometimes you might draw the short straw and get a bad boss. Guess what? That can happen anywhere. I have friends who have worked for small law firms and the managing partners are tyrants. I also have friends who work in some of the largest shops in the world, and they have had the nicest time imaginable. I have been lucky enough to work with great practitioners (and people) in both firms.

The bigger challenge for me in the smaller shop was that I represented clients in all that entails. This is the dream, right? Not exactly and not all the time.

The issue I had was that the work I did was often closer to the affected party. What I mean is that much of my representation involved working with individuals about real estate issues directly impacting their day-to-day lives. I don’t know about the average person, but this was waaaaaaaaaaay more stressful to me than working on a land use agreement between two multi-million dollar companies. I spent many, many, many more nights staring at the ceiling when I represented smaller clients than I do now. If I screwed something up, one of my clients might get evicted. Screw up another project and a landowner ends up with a 60 foot highway easement right through their living room. Not every day I come into the office now is a fight to the death over whether someone can keep their land, and that is a-okay with me.

There are, of course, people who live for those types of practices and… God bless ’em. I’m just saying that I am much more comfortable arguing over dollars and cents. To each his/her own…

You get to work on more interesting stuff in Big Law

Okay, okay… this one, to a certain extent, is fair. At the very least, you get to work on bigger projects as a general rule. Sometimes, the subject of your representation even makes the news… which can be cool.

But that is not to say that the interesting stuff stops at a certain level of law firm size. That is simply not the case either! I worked on many issues in may days with a smaller firm – some of which are even being determined by the Texas Supreme Court right now. The size of the claims may have been smaller, but the outcomes were every bit as interesting to me then as they are to the larger firms’ clients now.

All of this is meant to say that I’ve heard on both sides of the fence that the grass is always greener back on that other side… It has been my experience, that the turf is equally green on both sides. Which is great…

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