Life as an associate in a small firm

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By Stephen Marsh
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"I graduated from law school and wasn't in the top 10% -20%. Now I'm an associate in a dead end position, and I'm giving up hope -- what should I do?"

Graduating From Associate To Partner

This article tells you everything your placement office should have told you the moment you weren't in the top 10%.


You are likely in one of three categories: you work for a big firm; you have already gone solo; or, you are somewhere between a large firm and a solo practice. The purpose of this article is to help you if you’re in the third and biggest category.

Because I don’t want to cast the first two categories aside, I’d like to suggest what I believe are the best sources of good advice if your situation is outside the scope of this article.

If you are working for a "big" firm, then read Making Partner: A Guide for Law Firm Associates by Robert Michael Greene (published by the American Bar Association, The Section of Law Practice Management). This book covers just about everything you need to know.

If you have gone solo, I strongly recommend How to Start and Build a Law Practice, 3rd Edition by Jay Foonberg (published by the American Bar Association, The Section of Law Practice Management).

If you are somewhere between a large firm and solo practice, then this article is for you. Before we begin, I’ll suggest the obvious: keep tabs on your law school's placement office by subscribing to their services. Use them.

Life as an associate in a small firm

There is a great deal that most associates do not understand about the nature of small law firms. While you would never guess from the way law school is taught, 70-75% of the practice of law is in small law firms that still have the founder (or founders) working in them. Most graduates find jobs in these firms.

When you look at working conditions in a small firm you have to ask: what enabled the founder(s) to create a successful practice? It was not management skills; these are after all lawyers, not MBAs. Small office practice does not require that much management. It was not training for small office practice; no law school trains students for small office practice.
What makes a founder successful is enough ego to go out on his own in the first place. He keeps trying and toughs it out. He has a personality suited to doing a lot of work. The firm exists because the founder(s) were "tough enough" to build and create the firm. They are the firm, and this feeds their egos. In the minds of the original partners, the small firm is their property. It is what their work and risk-taking has entitled them to.

Two of the nicest guys I've met opened up a storefront office together shortly after law school. One litigated; one did business and probate. Their practices merged perfectly. Eventually they had so much work they decided to build their own custom offices and add an associate.
I remember the offices. Two large corner suites and a small cubby marked "associate." The only goal was to give "excess" work to a nameless associate to handle. Neither partner had the time or inclination to train the associate. In the minds of the partners, associates come ready trained. Isn't that what law school is for?
(You need to know that many, many solos and small firms seriously think that a law school should have taught you how to practice law. They are incensed, sometimes profanely, at the thought of "wasting" any time in training an associate.)
Not only was there no intent to train or manage the associate (who was to be a "self-starter" and to "handle things”); there wasn't room for the person to ever be more than just an associate confined to a tiny cubbyhole wedged between two suites.
The result: a business plan that had an associate as a permanent employee, not as a potential partner. This was a law firm run by people with no business management skill or experience. There was no room for the associate to grow. This was fine for a new graduate, but no place for the same person four or five years later.
The original partners didn’t really have a firm. They had strong egos and the ability to work hard, to fight for their place, and to endure until they won. This was no place for an associate to thrive.

In evaluating any law office keep in mind that associates are hired for business reasons — not out of the good of someone's heart. A firm’s original partners are going to hire associates to make money in the short run. This is an endemic mind-set in most small law offices. It’s just the nature of the business.

A firm profits from hiring associates by paying them less than they bring in. Pay levels for associates in small firms are generally perceived in "zero-sum" terms by the founders. If a small firm pays an associate more, it means that it is paying the founding partners less.
As a small firm ages, it takes natural steps. First, the firm has more business than the founders can handle. It adds associates (usually one or two) purely to handle the extra work and to allow the partners to make more money.
Then the natural thing happens. The partners start enjoying their prosperity. But to maintain their income and still have time to enjoy it, someone must do the work and get paid less than the partners themselves are earning. It is the same in all levels of law firms. When you read of some senior partners working 500 hours a year, billing $200 an hour and averaging $650,000 a year, you can bet it isn't coming from the hours they are working.

In a small law firm the financial loop is tighter. The associates are not trading income for training and potential partnership. All the associate has to trade is work against losing the job.

As time passes, associates realize that they can't progress financially without the money coming out of the partners’ pockets. In this zero-sum game the hours worked and the dollars in the firm remain the same. It is only a question of who will be getting the money.
The partners feel that they deserve what they have. They have worked hard, taken big risks, and have built a practice that is theirs. They fought to get it and they will fight to keep it.
However, partners know that 50% of small firms are born when overworked associates leave with a chunk of the client base. Which means that even the best founding partners are going to be protective of their clients and their contacts.
Sounds too familiar doesn't it? When you think about the complaints you've heard from friends in small offices, you can place almost every complaint as being caused by the pattern I've just described.

So, what should you do? That is the question facing the 75% of law school grads who end up in the kind of practice that law schools ignore.

You can drop out of the practice of law. Between 40% and 50% of all law school graduates drop out.

You can sue your law school for taking your money and not preparing you for the kind of practice that any idiot knows you (and most of your friends) are likely to wind up in. You will lose, but it might be cathartic, even if embarrassing.

Or, you can take a rational approach. Be realistic. Be patient.
Just because not a single professor in your law school has a clue as to how the real world works does not mean that there is not a solution.

Now that I’ve depressed you with all this background on what life in a small firm is like, it’s time to try and offer you some answers. Let’s make sure we’re clear on the question: What do you do when you are trapped as an associate in a firm where no one makes partner and you get fired for pushing for raises? That is the real question most associates in small firms eventually ask. Let’s try and tackle it.

No associate has to like the way small law firms naturally develop. No associate ever has. There are several rational things to do next.
Take the long view

You put in four years into college and three into law school. Now is not the time to take the short view.

In saying "take the long view" I am not suggesting that you go back to school and start over. While you can take two more years of school and get an LLM you'll have the same problems all over again when you get out. Getting an MBA without careful consideration is just another invitation to grief as are many attempts at career change via academic channels.
I'm not suggesting that you go to work for a legal corporation. While it makes for a fair, even and satisfying employment, the money isn't that good. Many legal corporation employees flatten out at $20,000 to $30,000 a year. Career grade school teachers generally do better.
I'm not suggesting that you go solo. Starting your own law office can be interesting, but I would not recommend it to most people.
What I am suggesting is that you go about the practice of law in a way that lets most people succeed as a part of the normal progression of life.

Begin by realizing that your current position is not permanent. There are changes in the status of associates that occur between three to four years into practice that are similar to the change in status that occurred between your first and second years of law school. You can either prepare for those changes and succeed or not prepare and end up perpetually frustrated.

The first part of being prepared is knowing where partners and senior associates at small and medium sized law firms come from. Contrary to popular opinion, the stork does not bring them. And most firms do not grow their own like cabbages behind the barn.
Partners and senior associates get recruited — not for their law school grades or good looks, but on the basis of need and experience. I know at least five associates who landed great jobs because they were recruited by other attorneys who liked their work. Four of them did not know they were looking for a new job until they got the offers. I know two partners that had the same experience.

Believe it or not, it is easy for other attorneys to see your work even if you are hidden in a closet. When you start work at a small firm, the quality of the firm’s work goes up, it goes down or it stays the same. Whatever the change, you have caused it. It doesn't matter if your name goes on the briefs or if you sign the pleadings. The difference in the quality of the firm’s work stems from you and your work.

If your work is good, this creates your first opportunity to be noticed. That’s why attention to quality is important.

Every time you feel cheated or upset, take some extra time and do a better job. No matter how little the firm is paying you, you are building equity that’s far more valuable: your reputation and skills are growing.

Every time you have a choice between being ethical and being a slime, be ethical. It may be the firm's monetary loss, but it is your reputation for honesty that is being built.

Every time you have the chance to do some court-appointed work or to get involved with the bar, take the opportunity to meet people and to become involved. Meet all the new people you can.

As an associate you have three important goals:

Learn how to do good work,

Have a good ethical reputation, and

Be seen.
Think about it. If you are looking for a new associate or a junior partner, you are going to look for someone who does good work, who you can trust and whom you have met. And someone who speaks well of his current employer.
No matter how bitter or cheated you may be, no prospective employer wants to hear about it. I don't care if the a.v. rated firm you work for requires 2,000 hours a year (at $150/hr for associates) and paid you only $20,000 a year and no benefits (after promising twice the money and full benefits).
The associate I knew with the firm described above only got hired after he quit complaining about how he was cheated. Whiners tend to complain and are not pleasant to be around. Never complain, and avoid being typecast as a whiner at all costs.

It is possible to work your way up. The anchor man in my law school class had a GPA only a tenth of a point or so above the required minimum to graduate. He had a miserable time and finally ended up in the most forsaken office sharing arrangement you have ever imagined (he paid rent and 50% of all his fees).

But, he did disciplined good work. This resulted in his winning some trials. After his third win — a miserable court-appointed immigration defense in federal court —, an a.v. rated bankruptcy firm looking for a litigator hired him.

The firm knew that it is easier to hire someone who has proved himself by winning that to guess on resumes. Like many medium sized firms, this one no longer hires associates directly from law school. It lets someone else train the associates and then hires the ones it likes.

Ethical and personable young attorneys who can work hard and who do good work are exactly what this firm hires. People who never complain. Just like that anchor man. If this young attorney had slacked off, done bad work, gotten lazy and sleazy or had made his private despair public, he would still be trapped in that office sharing arrangement.
The same is true of partners in many places.

Take a moment and think. You are in a situation where you deserve to be a partner. Unfortunately, all the partners in the firm graduated from law school together six years earlier than you did. You've got what it takes, but they are firmly in control of "their" property and don't see any reason to share. The feelings can get intense. As the news notes, in Texas they shoot each other.

In most firms, they also go “outside” to hire new partners. At a time when I was a frustrated associate, an a.v. rated attorney ask me if I'd like to go partners with him. (His own associate had just left to join another firm that liked that associate’s work… amazing how it works, isn’t it?)
The attorney had seen improvements in my firm's work, had sat through a couple of depositions with me and recognized I could do good work. Sometimes I wish I had taken the offer. (I went solo instead -- a blessing for me, but not the answer for most attorneys.)
Typically, partners or attorneys in charge can’t see making one of their associates a partner (much less offering them a decent raise). The attorney who offered me the job has lost at least ten associates. He could never see sharing his firm or his clients with them. But, he could see sharing it with someone (me) who came in from the outside.
This is how talented associates make partner.

The trick to surviving depressing, unforeseen and bleak times in a dead-end job is to realize that the dead-end is the firm's problem, not yours. You've got a future and good hope for the long run if you don't ruin yourself. This is true, no matter how many horses get shot out from under you.

As long as you do not get a reputation for sloppy work, bad ethics or a bad attitude, nothing that happens to you while working for a small firm is going to hurt more than money and a partnership in a better firm won't heal.
If you take the long view, more money and a partnership is exactly what you'll get.

Second “attached article”


Most of the graduates from any law school will find employment in small firms. The historical rate has been that about two-thirds will be employed in the type of small firms that do not exist in the world most of your professors live in. Your professors are just completely unconnected to the realities of most legal practice.

Ask yourself how many faculty members have worked as solo practitioners or in firms of five or less attorneys. How many have ever proved up a divorce, probated a will or defended a misdemeanor prosecution? How many have pursued an unlitigated personal injury claim or settled a workers compensation benefit?
About sixty percent of the graduates from "good" law schools do these things regularly in their practices. You will learn how to practice law from the judges, attorneys and clients you encounter in your first few professional engagements. Most crucial will be the first (or the second) law firm you find employment with. Law school should have taught you how to think; your first employment will teach you how to practice law.
This article consists of two parts. First, it explores the question of which small firms you should consider, which ones you should avoid and which ones you should be careful of. Second, we will discuss considerations that should affect your choice of where (i.e., the state and county) you will choose practice law.

Evaluating the small firm

The majority of people who find employment with a small firm find only "temporary" employment. Most small firms turnover their staff somewhere between every six months to six years. In my own practice, six years after I had accepted a job in Texas, none of the firms I had interviewed at that time were still listed in Martindale-Hubble.
In Wichita Falls, Texas, only one small firm still existed in the same form it existed in when I moved here after ten years, and none existed after fourteen.
Small firm attrition is no worse than large firm attrition. As an example, in Texas turnover in large firms is from 20% to 25% of the associates each year.

Stability in the practice of law comes from three things -- all of which you control. The three things are:

competent legal work,

sociability with other lawyers, and

client satisfaction.
If your legal work is competent, if you get along well with other lawyers, and if your clients like you and remember your name, then in the long run you will have as much stability in your legal practice as anyone else has (which may or may not be much).
All of these things take time to develop in a small firm setting. They are important to keep in mind when looking at a small firm. However, as you look, keep in mind that your stay with a small firm will most likely be a temporary thing. When evaluating a small firm you need to consider and evaluate it with the temporary nature of your employment firmly in mind.

What you want in a small firm is a firm that does competent work, that is friendly with other lawyers and that is liked by its clients. More, you want a firm that will help you develop those characteristics in yourself. Such things are much more important than initial or starting pay, the size of offices, the lack of benefits, or secretarial assignments.

Money and status-related perks often are much more flexible than beginning associates realize. More money and better perks are the entire reason for horizontal moves. (Small firms routinely engage in horizontal hires. They pursue competent attorneys they like and attorneys who can attract clients).
In evaluating a firm, look for the leading indicators that reflect these three critical bases.

The first base, competency, is reflected in professional reputation (including Martindale-Hubble ratings), library size, the billing rates and win/loss records. All of these can help you get a feel for the general competence of the work done by a firm.

Important clues also include the number of hours worked by firm members. Fewer hours usually means better focus and skill in the hours worked.
The firm’s reputation among other lawyers is important. Outside lawyers generally are a better barometer of the skill of the attorneys in a firm than those attorneys are. Sometimes the best "other lawyers" to ask about a firm's competence are associates or partners who have left the firm. Alumni in the area are an invaluable resource. Alumni will often tell you more than they would tell their own partners.
When you are evaluating firms, go for the ones that do high quality work. Be leery of a firm that does extremely shoddy work. Most firms are in the middle. What you want is a small firm that will allow you to do good, competent work. As long as the hour and output requirements of a firm are reasonable, you can do competent work -- on your own time if necessary. Remember, good work is something that you do not only for your clients, but for your reputation.

The second base, sociability with other lawyers (e.g., getting along, being personable), is easily checked by asking about the local bar association and the specialty organizations (if any) the local bar has. The attitude shown by the partner in describing various local organizations will clue you as to whether that partner is sociable or not. If she is positive, attends meetings and activities, or holds offices, then she is sociable. If he derides the bar association, considers such things a waste of time, or is hostile, then he is not sociable.

Note that regardless of whether or not the firm is sociable, as long as they allow you to be sociable, you can benefit. Again, high hour firms tend not to "allow" sociability. A firm that requires 2,700 billable hours a year -- as did one that I interviewed with -- does not have room for collegial endeavors. Look for a sociable firm.
Client contact

Finally, you want a firm that will allow you client contact. You cannot benefit from your contributions to client satisfaction if you don’t have contact with clients. Client contact is the only way that you gain a reputation with clients and the only way you learn to please them. Faceless staff attorneys are invariably the last hired, the first cut, and the lowest paid at every level.

You need to avoid a firm that insulates associates from clients. (Many firms do this to "protect" themselves from having associates steal clients). You also need to take the time and opportunity to deal with clients every chance that presents itself. The experience is invaluable.

Ideally, you should also find a small firm that has some commitment to training. That is so unlikely as to be at best an elusive dream. Most attorneys in small firms have no idea of how to train others, having never been formally trained or mentored themselves. At best you should find a firm where the partner or partners are not excessively hostile to the idea of helping or explaining legal tasks.

Unfortunately, you will probably have to train yourself. This is something that law schools do not address, small firms are unprepared to do, and it is a task you did not expect.
In this regard, you need to look for tolerance (how patient are the two or three lawyers that you will be working with/for) and for willingness to help.
Generally, competent, sociable and likable attorneys with reasonable work loads are more tolerant and willing to help than are those who are overburdened, non-sociable or hostile.

Evaluating the location of the small firm

Client esteem, professional stature and personal perceptions are all matters of reputation that do not travel well outside of your community. Since you can expect to be moving into the larger community, evaluating the area or location is actually more important that the evaluation you make of the first firm you work for in that community.

A community needs to offer two things. First, it needs to have a financial future. Second, it needs to offer that sort of society where you and your family can live.

The social and societal aspect of communities is one you have to evaluate for yourself from your own tastes, family and needs. Compare Billings, Montana and San Francisco, California. Both are considered heaven by some and hell by others. I can't tell you how to decide what you like and what your family needs.
However, the economics are easier to evaluate. All you need is an atlas, Martindale-Hubble, and some general background information. Look carefully at the community. Has it grown or shrunk in the past ten years? Shrinking economies are prevalent in some parts of the United States and are generally the most difficult of markets for your legal skills.
Next, how many attorneys are there in that area? Does Martindale-Hubble show an increase or a decrease? Alaska, with one attorney per approximately 200 persons is obviously more competitive than South Carolina with about one attorney per about 600 persons (as of 1992). Is the state wealthy or poor? (The rich tend to purchase more legal services than the poor.).
Finally, how does the local economy actually look? When you drive down a street, is there new construction, do homes sell relatively quickly, how is unemployment, how is local government spending? These are all good indicators to the real state of the local economy and sometimes are more useful than any chart, book or map.

In practice

Look at the location and economy first; and at the firms there second.

For two examples, look at Portland and Coos Bay in Oregon, as they were in the late Eighties. Portland had been generally moribund for the prior ten years, with some recent improvement. Coos Bay had grown from a prospective wild-life refuge into an important port. (These examples are dated, and they are not a substitute for your own timely research).
With a little research you can find out which community looks to grow more in the next ten years, which has the most attorneys per capita and which appeals to you more. After your research, you can start to look at the small firms in each area. You might go visit both areas, talk with the local bar association (easier in smaller jurisdictions) and shoot for a summer clerkship in one of them. (Small firms rarely have true clerkships, but many will hire someone at reduced pay to help out for the summer, thus giving both sides the chance to think about adding that someone to the firm).
Always take the opportunity to look through Martindale-Hubble, the various years of the Alumni Society Directory and other guides to identify firms, alumni and other sources of potential help, aid, or advice. State bar journals and legal magazines are also a good source of useful information.
If your search is successful, you will land a clerkship at a firm in the area you are actually interested in. Your reputation with other law firms (and thus your ability to be hired) starts with your first day clerking.

While clerking you are in a position to evaluate local small firms (mostly small partnerships) in terms of their need for another lawyer or associate; their competence; their sociability; and how their clients perceive them. Watch out for warning signs, but look for positive notes.

Your placement office can tell you more about clerking; but, clerking is an invaluable time to evaluate carefully a location you would consider for the practice of law. The same is true of employment in a county attorney's office, working for the Legal Services Corporation, and a myriad of other state and local agencies.


Many of the concerns that apply to large firms do not apply to smaller ones. Training programs -- a prime factor in large firm decisions -- don't exist. Partnership tracks and qualifications -- crucially important in large firms -- are irrelevant, since associates rarely become partners in small firms (assuming the firm lasts that long).

Other concerns are much more important. First is the quality of work -- a given for large firms. Next is sociability -- completely unimportant to large firms. Then comes client contact and satisfaction -- generally an area alien to large firm associates. Finally, we come to the work schedule, or the number of hours you are expected to work -- a consideration completely foreign to large-firm thinking and crucial to your ability to succeed in a small firm setting.
I work in an office sharing arrangement with two attorneys who left large firm settings. Five and a half years ago (from the date of the original essay) one was offered a job by Strasburger & Price, a very large Dallas firm. He turned that offer down and instead opened the office I now share. The other left the litigation section of a large city attorney's office in a Metroplex location. Both attorneys practice by choice in a small firm environment, in a smaller town setting, in a semi-solo manner (we are in a very close office sharing arrangement), in lives and practices that they enjoy.

Many attorneys, given both the experience of large and small firms will choose small firm culture and life. There are strong economic reasons for this choice. Altman & Weil, the legal economists, have noted that partners in small plaintiff's firms earn an average of $25,000 to $30,000 a year more than the partners at the large defense firms that oppose them.They also work fewer hours, take more vacations and have greater flexibility in who they have for clients and the type of work they do.

Outside of money, there are rewards and freedoms to practicing in a small firm that are not fully disclosed in law school. If you decide to work in a small firm, it is my hope that this article will help you choose one where you will be successful.

How to Start and Build a Law Practice --Jay G. Foonberg (Book) (Third Edition Available).

Flying Solo --Donna M. Killoughey (Essay Collection)(Second Edition Available)

The Altman & Weil REPORT TO LEGAL MANAGEMENT --Altman & Weil (Periodical)

This article was originally drafted in 1990. Since then it has been used by two law school placement offices and several placement officers. The current version (1998) has benefitted from substantial feedback from readers.

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