Having spent years in a large law firm, it’s easy to think that your options for a successful legal career are limited. However, most lawyers who make the move into a smaller environment report feeling happier, more satisfied and more rewarded than previously. We explain why.
1. You have more autonomy
No-one enjoys bureaucracy or the micro-managed work environment that usually comes with life in a big firm. Studies show that if workers have more autonomy to perform their job, they are likely to feel more motivated, productive and happier.
In a small law firm, you are likely to experience far greater autonomy and control. You will have greater freedom over the matters you will work on, and you are likely to have ultimate control over how those matters are handled.
You are also likely to be in a position to influence the overall direction of the firm, or at least make more decisions on a day-to-day basis that would often require various approvals in a larger office. You’ll hear ‘yes, sure’ a lot more than you’ll hear ‘you’ll need to get that approved’.
This kind of control is empowering. Greater autonomy and control means more responsibility and freedom to explore your potential, which in turn leads to more confidence and ultimately a more rewarding career.
2. It's more relaxed
Life in a larger law firm can be highly politicised and extremely competitive. This is particularly the case in the bigger firms where equity is owned by a small number of senior partners. Although some lawyers thrive on competition, for many it becomes a long-term recipe for disillusionment and burnout.
In contrast, small firms tend to be more collegiate and a lot more relaxed. This is for two reasons.
First, competition for senior roles in small firms is not nearly as fierce as it is for bigger ones.
Second, many owners of small firms will often see high quality staff as an obvious succession plan.
The consequence is that day-to-day, small firms tend to be more focused on just getting the job done, rather than getting caught up in politics or worrying about future opportunities.
Career progression within small firms tends to happen naturally. People tend to work collaboratively with the same common goal, rather than fight for rare opportunities for advancement.
3. Your work makes an immediate difference
In a small firm, your contribution counts. Virtually everything you do makes a direct impact – to the firm itself and to the people you work with (inside and outside of the firm).
You are expected to take the initiative and make things happen. When a deal is finalised or a dispute is resolved, your work will have made that happen. Similarly, within the office, you will be an integral member of the team. You have the opportunity of being able to change and improve everything around you.
Being able to see reward for effort provides a sense of meaning and purpose. You don’t get that same feeling if your contribution is only a small part of the larger picture.
4. You get a variety of work
The size of a law firm is inversely proportionate to the amount of work variety any individual solicitor is likely to experience.
Large law firms typically boast teams of experts in individual practice areas. To make the most of this expertise, practitioners are typically not allowed to stray outside their core area of expertise. The result is that most lawyers in big firms tend to experience limited variety and are expected to grow depth (rather than breadth) of knowledge.
Life in a small firm is different because there are fewer resources and because their clients typically do not need or want to deal with a different team of experts on every matter that comes up.
Although small firms tend to specialise, they often foster much closer relationships with their clients and reach the status of ‘trusted advisor’. This means they get asked a much wider range of questions than would otherwise be the case.
The result is that, in a small firm, you’re on a constant learning curve. Two days are rarely the same. It is this variety of practice that many people working in smaller practices value most highly.
5. You deal with less bureaucracy
Many hands make light work, but many lawyers can make complicated bureaucracy. In a small team, you’re more likely to work in a flat structure, with direct contact with the firm’s managers and owners.
Your suggestions or ideas for change are far more likely to be implemented than is the case when they are filtered through a long chain of managers. This is why, at least in the legal industry, the only businesses capable of being truly ‘agile’ are the smaller players.
6. You will notice a tighter culture
Small law firms guard their culture fiercely. This is because a bad hire in a small office will have a much greater impact than in a larger one.
A good culture doesn’t mean pithy vision and value statements. It’s more that everyone will be on the same page, all moving in the same direction. Everyone knows the (probably unwritten) rules of the game, and everyone follows them. The culture in many small firms is so tight that it is often described as being like family.
Although the teams will obviously be bigger in larger practices, they’re typically much tighter in smaller ones.
7. You'll probably work shorter hours
The legal industry is rife with stories of lawyers working long punishing hours at large firms. Of course, small law firms aren’t necessarily exempt from long days. It’s just that those days tend not to happen nearly as often.
This could be for a variety of reasons.
One is that smaller firms tend to have a different cost base, are typically not as leveraged, and therefore do not expect their lawyers to produce the same economic output as those in bigger practices.
Another is that small firms are often viewed by their clients as trusted advisors, rather than a commodity (for example, one of a number of similar firms on a panel). Relationships between clients and small firms tend to be long-term and more personal. The consequence is that client expectations are usually (although not always) more realistic and more humane.
A third is that small firms will make more of an effort to take care of their staff. This is mainly because the culture is so tight, as mentioned earlier. However it is also because small firms have less capacity to cover for sick or unproductive workers. Everyone matters in a small law firm.
A move to a small law firm is worth considering for a number of reasons. It may provide the perfect path for anyone looking for a more rewarding, more sustainable way to practise. Sure, life in a small firm won’t be for everyone. But if you’re even remotely thinking of a change, a role in a small law firm is definitely worth considering.