For most junior lawyers, it's BigLaw or it's nothing. This is a curious phenomenon, given how many experienced practitioners (having done their time) prefer to steer clear of the big firms, and also having regard to the number of talented lawyers who choose to leave the law after only a few years of practice in a big firm environment.
The mystique of BigLaw is perpetuated in part by a number of myths of life outside the big firm environment. We tackle a few of these myths below.
1. Small law firms don’t pay well.
Not true. If you’re good at what you do, small law firms are likely to pay just as much, and possibly more, than what you’re earning right now.
Because they don’t have the brand power of the big firms, small firms have to do more to attract the highest quality people.
Most of the time, the biggest selling point is the significant improvement in work/life balance. However working fewer hours doesn’t always mean that you’ll have to take a pay cut at the same time.
And if you did try to measure it on the basis of money earned versus hours worked, the good small firms will come out on top every time.
A final thing to keep in mind is that lawyer salary guides are notoriously unreliable. It's dangerous to make assumptions about what any firm is willing to pay.
2. They don't get good work.
If ‘good work’ is the kind of matter that gets mentioned on the front pages of newspapers, BigLaw is more likely to be your thing.
The value of matters in small firms tends to be smaller – but that doesn’t mean the work is no good.
Indeed, most people who transition from larger firms to smaller ones tend to prefer the work because:
- it tends to be more varied;
- it’s often more hands-on;
- there's typically more individual responsibility; and
- you generally work with people who have a vested interest in the outcome, and who therefore take an interest in what you are doing.
If anything, the work tends to be just as challenging and often more rewarding than you will find in bigger firms. The bonus is that you won’t be working the same hours.
As you would expect, the better quality small firms attract the better quality work, measured in terms of the nature and size of the matters. The better small firms are often doing exactly the same work as many of the large firms – it’s just that they’re acting on the other side.
3. The quality of the work is poor.
This is perhaps the biggest misnomer. That’s like saying the quality of all work done by big law firms is great. Neither statement is true.
Big law firms delegate more work to junior lawyers than their smaller firm counterparts. The result is that big law firms often have less qualified people doing the work than is the case in small firms.
It is true that some small law firms are a lot better than others, in the same way that some big firms (or practice groups or individual lawyers in big firms) are better than others.
Provided you do your due diligence, you are just as likely to be involved in high quality work in a small firm as you are in a big one.
4. It won’t help your career.
Having a BigLaw name on your CV at the start of your career may open up plenty of options later on. But that doesn't mean that working in a small firm won't give you options either.
Whilst acknowledging that Turtons is not your typical small law firm, some of our former colleagues have gone on to become:
- general counsel of national and international companies;
- partners of national law firms;
- founders of their own businesses;
- senior managers in multi-national corporations;
- psychologists, artists, human resources experts and all other manner of other things.
If you would like to continue doing what you are currently doing, for the rest of your career, staying on the same path makes sense. If not, a move to a small law firm is worth considering.
5. Good small law firms in Sydney are hard to find.
This one is partly true, unless you know where and how to look.
Small law firms don’t have the same resources (or interest) to market themselves like the big firms, and this necessarily makes them harder to find. You won’t find a convenient or reliable list of small law firms in Sydney, other than running some basic Google searches. You obviously can’t search by name, because you won’t know who they are.
Here are a few tips on how to find them.
- Ask around, and not just lawyers. Accountants and other advisors will often be familiar with a range of small firms.
- Think about matters you’ve worked on, and consider who has been on the other side.
- Search on LinkedIn.
- Search for articles relevant to the type of work you are interested in.
- If you meet someone in a good small law firm, ask them about other small firms they know of.
Once you have found a firm that looks interesting, spend some time on their website. Being lawyers, they probably will have produced most (and possibly) all of the written content themselves.
You will be able to draw a lot of conclusions about a firm just by looking at their website – most of which are likely to be accurate. Search for them in Google, find out who they act for, and see if you know anyone who has worked with them.
And if you like what you see, start a conversation. Subscribe to a blog, follow them on LinkedIn, even drop them an email or register for future opportunities.
You never know where it might take you.