Working at a law firm is a great start for young lawyers to gain experience and work their way up to a partnership. Still, this track isn’t always the best fit for every lawyer. Some lawyers will do better on their own as solo practitioners and others will be better served in small or large firms. There are several tracks available to lawyers and it’s important to understand each to make the best decision for their career.
What Is It Like to Work at a Law Firm?
There’s no simple answer to this question. The experience depends on the size and reputation of the firm, the practice area, and other factors. No matter the size of the firm, the legal industry is known for being stressful and often includes long hours that seep into a lawyer’s personal time.
The benefits of working at a law firm include getting training from more experienced lawyers, a guaranteed salary, and experts in different departments to handle specific areas of the law firm’s business like invoicing and billing. Lawyers at law firms simply get to practice law without worrying about running a business, handling their own marketing or accounting, or other hassles. That said, the experienced lawyers will have in a small law firm can vary widely, as can the experience in large firms. Some firms may seek out any case they can, while others may focus solely on class action lawsuits followed by layoffs until the next case comes around.
Mid-sized firms are a good in-between that offer less competition and more stability overall, but they can have their downsides. At the right firm, a young lawyer can learn and grow, eventually becoming a vital part of the team.
The big established law firms offer career opportunities, but they can be the most stressful of them all. Big Law tends to be competitive and glorify the hustle culture, which can take a toll on work-life balance.
Lawyers should also keep in mind that the practice area and location can have an impact on the overall experience. For example, criminal law and personal injury law can be stressful, while corporate law has steadier hours.
How Much Do Lawyers Make?
Once again, the salary at a law firm isn’t universal. Most law firms offer stability in pay, but the amount can vary by location, legal market, practice area, and size of the firm. Oftentimes, larger salaries come from established Big Law firms, but there are structured salary models that any size firm can use to gauge market-rate salaries. Now more than ever, the legal industry has become increasingly competitive when it comes to salary with frequent reports on raises and “salary wars” to stand out in the job market.
What Are the Benefits of Working at a Law Firm?
The biggest benefit of working at a law firm is the structure. Law firms provide training, development, and mentorship from experienced lawyers, as well as specialized support staff that can offer guidance and catches mistakes. Plus, lawyers at law firms get a guaranteed salary, unlike lawyers who venture out on their own.
Many lawyers go into practicing law to make a difference in other lives, fight for justice, or to make changes in public policy. Being at a law firm (big, small, or solo) ultimately allows lawyers to do just that. The only difference is the resources at your disposal to do so. At a big law firm, you may have a lot of resources, but too much structure limits how you practice law and help others. While at a small or solo law firm, you may have fewer resources but you may have the ability to create your own structure and define your own path for practicing law.
Working at a Big Firm
Most people have an understanding of what it’s like to work at a big firm – long hours, buttoned-up culture, and years of grinding before “making it.” Some of this is reality, especially having a substantial salary that can pay off law school debt quickly. All things considered, working at a big law firm is a great resume builder and can be a great lift-off point for lawyers.
It’s worth noting that since the COVID-19 pandemic, big law firms have made shifts in how they operate and manage lawyers. There has been more attention than ever to mental health awareness, diversity and inclusion, AND work-life balance. While the legal industry has made great strides in these areas, there is still work to be done to make big law firms more inclusive and tend to the general well-being of their lawyers.
Working at a Small to Mid-size Firm
For some, small to mid-size firms are where many young lawyers find themselves and the firms they enjoy the most. These firms are more casual, they work on more substantive cases, and they have a more flexible culture. Young lawyers get to practice law sooner and have more stake in the business than they would at a big law firm.
The downsides of working at a small firm typically include a lower salary and of course, long hours. Small firms have smaller budgets which means they can’t afford to have specialized departments to support lawyers. In many cases, lawyers will need to manage their own billing, invoices, or even marketing. The silverling here is that these lawyers get exposed to all aspects of the business of managing a law firm and can branch out to own their own firm.
Working at a Solo Firm
Some lawyers leave law school wanting to go out on their own immediately. This can work out well for many lawyers, especially if they have an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to be in control. However, with making the decision to own your own law firm, lawyers take on all of the risk and responsibility of managing the firm. This can be very stressful, especially for new lawyers.
All hope isn’t lost though and being a solo practitioner has become more common with the introduction of technology. Legal practice management software has expanded the way lawyers practice, how they manage their business, and support clients. In a single platform, lawyers can track and bill time, prepare invoices, manage cases, process online payments, and even send documents for electronic signature. For lawyers with an entrepreneurial spirit and drive to own their own firm, there has never been a better time to start a solo practice.
Lawyers have plenty of options after law school, it just depends on what they’re looking for. Big Law, small, and solo firms all come with their own pros and cons. It’s important, however, that the pros outweigh the cons and lawyers truly enjoy what they do every day.