Klarissa Jeiel: Where Law Meets Design

Big Law vs. Mid Size vs. Small Law Firm?

Wondering what size of law firm you'll apply to? This article tells you the difference and pros & cons of big law vs. mid size vs. small law to help you decide!

This is an article in a series of articles called Your Ultimate Guide to Law Student Recruitment Don’t forget to read the previous article here: How to Do Law Firm Research

Introduction

After doing your law firm research, you might be thinking that most law firms sound the same. They’ll tell you about the different areas of law that they practice in, their lawyers, the kind of work students can expect from them, etc. etc. And if you haven’t figured out which law firms you want to apply to during the law school recruitment, this isn’t very helpful. But luckily, you can group all the different law firms into three broad categories: big law vs. mid size vs. small law firm.

Each of these categories provides a different set of opportunities and challenges so try narrowing down your options by deciding whether you want to work in big law, a midsized law firm or small law firm. To help you decide, this article will discuss the pros and cons of each type of law firm.

What is big law?

“Big law” is what you often see in movies or TV shows that feature a law firm. This is the type of law firm that is large in size. Law firms in this category usually have hundreds or thousands of lawyers and staff working in multiple offices. They have branches across the country and even around the world. Out of all the categories of law firms, big law pays the most. It also has a wide range of practice areas and caters to big clients. Think: large corporations, financial institutions, wealthy people. Other than money, the benefits of working in big law include prestige, well-established structure (mentorship, training, etc.) and access to good resources like librarians and legal databases. The downside? High billable targets, longer hours, bureaucracy, and less exposure to working with more senior partners or even clients as a student. Unlike smaller law firms, big law firms don’t need their students to manage files from the get-go because they have far more lawyers to delegate work to.

PROSCONS
– Better pay
– Prestige
– More resources
– Wide range of practice areas
– More complex and exciting legal matters
– Well-established structure (they’ve figured out what works in terms of training, mentorship, delegation, etc.)
– Other benefits (nice office space, free meals, memberships, etc.)
– High billable targets
– Long hours
– High pressure
– Competitive
– Rigid and bureaucratic structure
– Less opportunity to manage or be more involved in a file
– Less hire back rate (big law often hires several students but doesn’t necessarily invite them all back to become associates)

What is considered mid size firm?

It’s hard to say exactly what size counts as a medium-sized or mid size law firm. There’s just such a wide range because it’s essentially the middle ground between big law and small law. Midsized firms can have a single office or multiple offices but generally, they are confined to one city or region. The number of lawyers they have can vary from a few dozen to a couple of hundred. The biggest advantage of working in a midsized firm is getting to experience the best of both worlds. You get to work on files of different complexity with various types of clients in diverse areas of law like in big law while having less targets and hours and maybe even getting more involvement in a file like at a small law firm. Of course, the drawback is less pay and less prestige. Compared to big law, a medium-sized law firm also might not have the best resources or support.

PROSCONS
– Wide range of practice areas and types of legal matters
– More flexible structure
– Better work-life balance (lower targets, less hours)
– Other benefits (nice office space, free meals, memberships, etc.)
– More involvement in a file
– Less pay
– Competitive
– Less resources and support
– Less prestige
– Lack of specialization (most midsized firms offer a wide range of practice areas which is generally a benefit but that also means they lack specialization and if you want to practice in a very niche area and only that area, midsized might not be the right fit for you)

Note: Keep in mind that because what’s “mid size” can vary widely, it’s difficult to tell what your experience might be exactly. Some mid size firms that are on the larger end are more akin to big law (high salary, high billable targets, long hours, etc.) while others on the smaller end are more akin to small law (collaborative, heavy file involvement, less pressure, etc.) so take these pros and cons with a grain of salt. They may not apply in every scenario.

What is a small law firm?

A small law firm has a small number of lawyers. Small law firms typically have about a dozen lawyers, though law firms with more than 12 but less than 20 can be considered small as well. A small law firm is characterized by a tight knit team of lawyers. Because of its small size, there’s more emphasis on collaborative work and shared-decision making which is a plus for those looking for that type of work culture. Another benefit of working at a small law firm is the opportunity for students and junior lawyers to make a more meaningful contribution to client files. Because there are not as many lawyers to cover each client, small law firms allow frequent direct interaction with clients and a more hands-on legal experience. Compared to big law, small law firms are also typically better with work-life balance. There are, of course, drawbacks to small law. The biggest drawback is less pay but there’s also: limited resources, fewer benefits, multitasking and niche practice areas.

PROSCONS
– Better work-life balance (lower targets, less hours)
– More involvement in a file
– Greater autonomy
– Flexibility
– Quicker advancement opportunities
– Higher retention (small law firms generally can’t afford to hire law students so when they do, they intend to keep them)
– Less pay
– Less prestige
– Niche practice areas (although this could be a pro if you know exactly what you want to do and you find a firm that specializes in it)
– Multitasking (there may not be enough lawyers and support staff, etc. so you will end up wearing several hats and handling various tasks)
– Limited resources and support
– Difficulty finding other job opportunities (especially if you’re looking to get into big law from small law – it’s much easier the other way around)

Conclusion

Depending on the size of the law firm, the type of work you do, your workload, the work culture and overall experience may vary greatly. So it’s important to think about what’s important to you. Think about factors like pay, work-life balance, resources, and the kinds of practice areas you’re interested in. Law firms are always looking for the right “fit.” And as cliche as it sounds, it’s true. Even if you’ve always dreamt of working in big law, if you hate the sound of working 10-12 hours a day, working on weekends, etc. then it might not be the right fit for you. Find your fit! That said, sometimes, you just don’t know until you experience it yourself so if you get a summer or articling opportunity at a firm and you find out it’s not for you once you start working there, it’s not the end of the world. You can always find another position at a different size law firm so for the law school recruit, keep an open mind and apply to firms widely 🙂

This is an article in a series of articles called Your Ultimate Guide to Law Student Recruitment. Check back next week for the next article!

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