How to transition from small to big firm (or vice versa)

One of the most difficult points in a legal career is the transition between firms of vastly different sizes. This is due to the many differences between large and small firms in terms of work culture, clients, career prospects, and much more.

In making this transition, an attorney needs to examine several factors. What is the attorney looking for with this change? When and how should they make the transition? What about the post-transition period? And how can technology help a lawyer with this shift?

What to look for in large and small firms

While it is inaccurate to overly generalize about large and small firms, there are some distinctions between the two that tend to hold true.

Pros and cons of large firms

First, the main draw of large firms – they will tend to offer higher compensation than small firms. With large institutional clients sending in large amounts of work for high billable rates, Big Law can afford to offer higher attorney pay.

Large firms also offer more resources in terms of support staff, technology, and other attorneys to share workloads and responsibilities. There will likely be a team of paralegals or secretaries to perform any administrative or support work. And with multiple attorneys working on many cases, it is less likely that any single attorney will be left to “go it alone” on a difficult matter.

The work of large firms is often more sophisticated as well. For complex and high-value litigation matters or transactions, many clients will seek out the greater resources and perceived expertise of a bigger firm.

What about small firms?

Small firms tend to have less hierarchy and structure than large firms, which can cut both ways for attorneys. Younger attorneys are going to generally receive more “hands-on” experience – more depositions, client meetings, and trial experience, and less document review. Some attorneys will thrive in this environment, but there is greater potential for major mistakes.

Small firms may also offer better opportunities for attorneys to build their own books of business and establish a positive reputation in the legal community. A large-firm attorney may have difficulty pursuing client development, since many of the partners already have established clients and simply need attorneys to do the work. And small-firm lawyers are more likely to have direct contact with the existing partners than in Big Law, providing the chance to form better professional relationships.

When to make the transition from large to small or vice versa

The timing of the transition is another difficulty. For the small-to-large transition, the timing will often simply be a matter of opportunity. Landing positions at large firms is generally more difficult, so for attorneys determined to make this transition, they may simply need to jump on the chance when it arises.

But what about the other side of the equation? A Big Law attorney with a client base willing to move firms with them may be presented with an attractive proposition from a smaller firm. Another possibility is a partner the attorney works with making the move to a smaller firm. Often these partners take both clients and attorneys with them.

An attorney making the large-to-small shift should also consider whether they want to return to Big Law in the future. Big Law attorneys tend to operate as an exclusive club, based on impressive academic resumes and the assumption you will work consistently long hours. When an attorney leaves the Big Law club, there is some tendency for bias against them when they seek to return.

Best practices for the transition and post-transition periods

In seeking to make the transition, both large-firm and small-firm attorneys need to decide how they will handle their job search. Will you keep the job search confidential or not?

If the lawyer publicizes their intentions, there are many potential negative consequences. These include being asked to leave before you are ready, being given less desirable work assignments, or encountering unwanted pressure to stay.

Nonetheless, there could be some advantages to not hiding your job search. This may enhance the likelihood of leaving the firm on good terms. The attorney may be able to enlist the help of colleagues with information or contacts. And keeping a job search confidential carries its own set of stressors. It may be unpleasant to maintain deceptions, and there is always a possibility of the firm discovering your intentions.

Once at the new firm, the attorney needs to keep their long-term goals in mind. If the former Big Law attorney thinks he might want to return to Big Law, he should consider developing a portable book of business and working in a niche area where large firms may need help. Conversely, a former small-firm attorney may want the option of returning to a small firm, so they will need to maintain their areas of expertise and client relations.

Using technology to scale up or down in your legal career

Over the course of a career, many attorneys will need to scale “up” or “down” in terms of the size of the firm where they work. Mastery of legal technology can make these transitions simpler.

Small firms are increasingly needing the same tech capacity as larger firms in order to handle time-consuming administrative tasks such as court filings and document management. In fact, smaller firms can often benefit from tech tools even more than large firms. With limited staff and resources, the ability to automate workflows and streamline processes can be critical. Large firms, on the other hand, may have tech tools already in place, and newly arrived attorneys should become familiar with them.

No matter what the reason is for your move, keep these factors in mind. While there are risks associated with any shift, the opportunities for career advancement and personal fulfillment may outweigh them.

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