SMALL AND MEDIUM FIRM JOB SEARCH
What is a Small Firm? What is a Medium Firm?
“Small” and “Medium” are relative terms. While firms of up to five attorneys are
generally considered small, firms of up to 100 attorneys can be called small or
medium, depending on the context. This resource uses the term “smaller” to discuss
firms which, whether considered small or medium, are not part of what is known as
Biglaw. (Satellite offices of big firms are not included; the offices may be small, but
they are part of a big organization.) These firms are not found in the NALP Directory,
nor in the American Lawyer compilations of the major US law firms, and, for the most
part, do not participate in on‐campus recruiting at Berkeley Law. Despite their lower
profile, however, these firms may be very desirable places to work.
Smaller firms fall into a number of different categories, including the following:
Specialty practices, including:
‐ estates, trusts and probate;
‐ family law;
‐ criminal defense;
Firms with a particular agenda (e.g., impact, civil rights).
Some firms, primarily in smaller communities, do “whatever walks in the door,” while
other firms do one or two things exclusively. Most handle a range of legal matters.
Boutiques are specialized in one or two areas, and may compete with larger firms for
work requiring particular expertise. Smaller firms’ clients may be medium or small
(probably not large) businesses, or they may be individuals. Generally, the smaller the
firm, the greater the number of individual or small business clients. Plaintiffs’ firms
run the gamut from solo personal injury attorneys to high‐profile securities litigators.
Why a Smaller Firm?
Quality of life; “balance”
Opportunity to specialize and develop expertise
Responsibility early on
Collegiality, sense of belonging
Greater client contact
Faster partnership track
More flexibility in compensation structure
Lower starting salary
Some types of work aren’t done at smaller firms (e.g., megadeals and
Can be isolated or even claustrophobic
Fewer resources, less support staff
Less formal training
Not necessarily less work or less pressure than larger firm
Overall, life at a smaller firm tends to be less pressured and attorneys tend to work
fewer hours than at big firms. Sometimes, however, the pressure can be greater,
because there are fewer attorneys to spread the work to when there is too much of
it. Smaller firms are unlikely to offer training to new attorneys in the form of mock
trials or other formal exercises, but they are more likely to willing to let them go
cover a deposition or make a court appearance, because their hourly rate is relatively
low and there are fewer people working on each matter. As with any firm, the
stability of a smaller firm can be hard to gauge. Smaller firms have lower overhead,
so they may be more able to respond promptly to changes in market conditions.
Certain common practice types (e.g., criminal defense) may be fairly immune to
economic downturns. Some smaller firms are benefiting from corporate clients’
increasing unwillingness to pay the hourly rates of major firms. However, smaller
firms may be more vulnerable to overdependence on one or two leaders who have
exclusive relationships with clients.
Finding the Firms
Sometimes smaller firms list job openings on b‐Line, or on general listings such as
Craigslist. However, many jobs with smaller firms are never listed; they are filled by
personal referrals. Therefore, even more than with larger firms, networking and
developing your personal contacts will be very important to your job prospects. The
CDO has many resources to help you develop your personal networking skills and
If you plan to reach out directly to smaller firms without current listings, you will have
to develop a list of firms which meet your criteria (size and location of firm, and type
of work they do). Smaller firms, unlike larger ones, can be difficult to locate
systematically. Martindale Hubbell is a directory of attorneys which is searchable on‐
line (www.martindale.com), or within Lexis‐Nexis (allows more detailed, flexible
searches than the web‐based version). You can search both of these resources by
the size of the firm, the type of practice, and the location. You can also search for
Berkeley Law alumni at firms, which can give you a very good starting place for your
The b‐Line includes the names of firms who have listed jobs previously; even if there
is no current listing with such a firm, the fact that it sought in the past to hire Boalt
students or alumni distinguishes it from other firms with no particular connection to
the school. Some types of work, such as criminal defense, lend themselves to finding
practitioners by looking from the point of view of a prospective client; imagine you
needed the kind of lawyer you hope to be; how would you find one? The San
Francisco Trial Lawyers Association (http://www.sftla.org/SF) is an organization of
plaintiffs’ attorneys; their membership directory is searchable online.
How to Approach a Smaller Firm
As with any prospective employer, a personal touch is best. Whether you are
responding to a listing, following up on a personal contact, or making a cold
application, try to convey that you know something about what the firm does, and to
show that this is what you want to do, e.g,: “I hope to work for a small estate
planning firm.” (Of course if you do have a personal contact at the firm, use it: “Jose
Smith said I should contact you.”).
If you are approaching a firm directly (not in response to a listing), you will need to
follow the usual process of submitting a cover letter and resume (have a writing
sample, list of references, and transcript ready in case you are asked, in response to
your letter, to provide them). The CDO has many resources, including sample
resumes and cover letters, and suggestions about other application materials, on its
Note that small firms don’t normally have a Recruiting Department or a Hiring
Partner; screening job applications might be done by a longtime staff person, or just
ad hoc. A mid‐sized firm is more likely to have a firm administrator to whom you can
submit your application. You can also write to one of the attorneys (the name
partner, or someone with a background similar to yours). If there is an alumnus or
alumna of Berkeley Law working at the smaller firm, it is often worthwhile to start by
contacting this person directly
Smaller firms also don’t have jobs for “summer associates,” because they don’t have
structured, multi‐year recruiting programs, and their needs don’t change just because
it is summer. Just state in your cover letter when you are hoping to work (e.g.,
summer, or after graduation).
Whereas big firms with fall recruiting and summer associate programs are attuned to
the school year, smaller firms usually are not, and only look for help when they need
it, perhaps because a case is going to trial, a new client came in the door, or someone
left the firm. The good news is that smaller firms’ detachment from the rituals of
large‐scale recruiting means that it is never too late to apply. (Also, if you get an
interview, you can be confident that it is because they are interested in hiring
someone, and soon.) If you are looking for a permanent post‐graduation job, you
may find that some firms want to wait until bar exam results are available; others
may hire recent graduates on a temporary or contingent basis.
It is particularly important to follow up on your efforts with a smaller firm, because
their needs can change quickly, and you want to be the person they think of when
they start looking for someone. So if you feel you have made any kind of real
contact, stay in touch with the people you know at smaller firms.
As smaller firms are private businesses, they don’t make their compensation public,
and it is not scrutinized the way larger firms’ pay scales are. At some point—
preferably after you have received an offer‐‐ you have to discuss compensation with
the firm, and figure out whether it works for you. The CDO has several resources to
help you determine whether a smaller firm’s pay scale is appropriate for the market
you are in (see the list below). While chances are the compensation at a smaller firm
is less than at big firms, you may have more room to negotiate from what you are
initially offered; in fact, they may expect you to negotiate. The firm may not hire
often enough to offer a standard package to a student working for the summer or a
new attorney; you may have to educate them on current compensation levels.
Depending on the size of the firm, there may also not be a standard partnership
track; this can be to your advantage, as you may advance more quickly based on your
accomplishments. Take the other parts of your compensation, like benefits and
perks, into account in evaluating your offer. (See the resources listed below for a
good checklist.) At some point before you accept a permanent offer, you should
speak frankly with the smaller firm employer about the expectations as to hours—
how much you work for your paycheck is a major factor in your compensation. It is
not typical for smaller firms to pay for your bar expenses, which can affect the timing
of your job search.
Energy and persistence are key to all job searches, but this is especially true when you
are looking at smaller firms. Be able to articulate why you want to work for a smaller
firm, and for this firm in particular.
An understanding of a smaller firm’s basic business considerations will help you show
your sophistication to an interviewer, and will also help you evaluate the desirability
of an offer. Some of the resources below contain information to help you
understand how smaller firms operate. Overhead and cash flow (especially for
plaintiffs’ firms, which are usually compensated at least in part by contingency fees)
are very important to smaller firms. They are also less likely than major firms to pay
interview or bar exam expenses.
No one in the private sector is exempt from the responsibility of getting and keeping
clients, but you may come up against this more quickly in a smaller firm. How might
you show your business‐getting ability in an interview? Try to emphasize your
community involvement, and keep in mind that interpersonal skills (such as eye
contact and personal warmth) are extra important. A smaller firm should be
particularly interested in your good judgment, which may come into play sooner at a
smaller firm, because of a high level of responsibility early on. Although smaller
firms’ requirements vary as to academic record, they will always place a heavy
emphasis on an applicant’s competence and personal qualities.
At smaller firms, it is impossible to avoid your colleagues, so you should really look for
a fit with your prospective colleagues. Personality conflicts are one of the key causes
of dissatisfaction at smaller firms.
1. Books (available for consultation at the CDO library or used online).
Choosing Small, Choosing Smart: Job Search Strategies for Lawyers in the Small
Firm Market, by Donna Gerson. Information on why and how to get a job with a
smaller firm, and includes a chapter on where attorneys go from (after) small
Guerrilla Tactics for Getting the Legal Job of Your Dreams, by Kimm Alayne
Walton (aka the Job Goddess), 2nd ed. Chapter 18 (dedicated to small firms; look
especially at the checklist of negotiating terms)
Beyond the Big Firm: Profiles of Lawyers Who Want Something More, by Diane T.
Chin and Alan B. Morrison. Contains many profiles of attorneys working at
Flying Solo: A Survival Guide for the Solo and Small Firm Lawyer, 4th ed., by K.
William Gibson. (Aimed at people interested in opening their own offices, but
flags many of the issues faced by smaller firms (e.g., client retainer agreements;
keeping research costs down); good resource to gain sophistication about how
smaller firms operate.
2. NALP resources (available for consultation at the CDO library)
Associate Salary Survey ‐ 2008 (NALP, 2008)
Starting Salaries: What New Law Graduates Earn (NALP, 2008)
Jobs & J.D.'s: Employment and Salaries of New Law Graduates ‐ Class of 2007
(NALP, July 2008)
3. Other Resources
Pslawnet.org has listings from more progressive/plaintiff‐side firms.
International Network of Boutique Law Firms (www.inblf.com)(has searchable
Law.com’s “Small Firm Business” section:
American Bar Association’s General, Solo and Small Firm division:
State Bar of California Solo and Small Firm section: