Bigger is Better
by Andrew Gurman
Large law firms offer state of the art technology, Class “A” office space, bright and hardworking lawyers, in-house marketing and public relations departments, and other excellent features. Although big firms’ drawbacks can include a profit-centric and up-or-out culture and limited advancement opportunities, large firms offer many advantages over their smaller brethren. Here are some reasons to consider staying at or attempting a move to a larger firm.
- Training: If you want to work on bet-the-company, high profile, Wall-Street-Journal-headline types of matters, BigLaw is a great place to find them. Associates can hone their skills working with industry-leading partners on sophisticated deals/cases that smaller firms often cannot get. In several large firms, associates have the ability to rotate through two or three different transactional departments for their first few years so that they can get broad exposure to various practice areas before selecting their preferred area of specialization. Similarly, litigation associates in large firms can often work with many different partners on both small and large teams and get experience with a broad range of complex commercial litigation matters. In addition, BigLaw associates can work on a variety of pro bono matters (immigration, family law, criminal defense, etc.) that are rarely offered at small firms.
- Future Opportunities: Large, prestigious firms open doors for a move to an in-house position, government positions, and to other BigLaw firms or smaller firms. When all of these entities evaluate potential candidates, they place a major emphasis on an associate’s current law firm. Furthermore, having previously worked for a major law firm continues to carry weight throughout a legal career—both from a job search and a business development perspective. Several clients over the years have specifically requested candidates who worked for particular firms because of that firm’s practice area expertise, impressions that such firms provide excellent training for associates, or the attorneys’ mettle for enduring at such a firm for a lengthy period.
- Compensation: Big firms tend to pay well in both base compensation and bonuses, which some elite firms provide more than just at year’s end. For example, a third year associate at many BigLaw firms earns a base salary of $185,000; such an associate could have earned a bonus this past December of $25,000. Small firms that pay at top-market rates are rare. While several BigLaw firms are adjusting their compensation structures to be more merit-based, they still typically pay well above what smaller firms pay. BigLaw is an attractive choice for law school graduates who seek to reduce their debt resulting from student loans.
- Expanded Platform: Let’s take the example of a solo practitioner who only gets paid based on what s/he generates and on matters on which s/he works. If that attorney were to join a larger firm, s/he may get paid not only for that work but also a percentage of billables for (1) work done for other attorneys and (2) work generated by that attorney on which other attorneys work. As another example, a litigation partner who moves from a litigation boutique to a full-service firm can now increase her/his originations by providing a real estate matter to a partner at the new firm, rather than handing it off to an attorney outside the firm. At a larger firm, a partner can market the capabilities of her/his law partners to existing clients so that the partner can send work to partners in various practice areas. In addition, a partner moving to a larger firm can internally cross-market his skills and benefit by receiving work from a broad variety of partners at the new firm.
- Attracting Larger Clients/Matters: Along similar lines, a move to a more prestigious firm increases a partner’s ability to generate new and larger clients who otherwise would not have worked with her/him. Large firms allow for attorney teams that can handle the largest deals/cases, which small firms simply don’t have the capacity to handle. Also, many companies have approved lists of firms with which they are willing to work. Partners in big firms contemplating a move to a smaller firm need to ensure that their existing clients would work with such firm (or would be amenable to putting the firm on the approved list).
- Support: Big firms often offer excellent support, such as round-the-clock help from assistants, paralegals, and associates. Multi-office firms allow partners to rely on support from other offices, where billing rates may be more attractive to clients. In addition, it can be challenging for a partner at a small firm to focus her/his efforts on recruiting new associates and support staff and dealing with their loss. When a partner loses an associate at a large firm, for example, the firm can staff another associate(s) to her/his matters and can have its recruiting department work on finding a replacement. Also, because larger firms pay well and offer the other benefits mentioned in this article, such firms often find it easier to attract and retain talented associates.