Large, medium or small, whichever size law firm you choose to lay your roots there are advantages and disadvantages to both. It all depends on your own preferences and which one you feel is right for you personally. Try not to get trapped in to the mind set of chasing the highest salary with the highest profile clients, as you may end up on a path to a field you’re not entirely happy with, and once you’ve begun on your path to a specific field of expertise, it’s not always easy to branch out.
Bear in mind a firm’s area of expertise is sometimes closely related to the size of their business. Larger firms generally practice commercial law and take on giant international organisations, compared to smaller firms on the high-street who tend to target members of the public. This is however a typical view and there are a number of exceptions to this general rule.
It is also important to realise that different law firms are looking for different types of lawyers and you need to pay close attention to their entry criteria. Larger commercial firms will often have ridged academic criteria of at least a 2:1 degree and a minimum of A,A, B at A-level. If you don’t have this (and do not have mitigating circumstances) there is no point in applying to these firms as your application will be screened out.
Although securing a position at a large law firm with high end cases may be an attractive prospect, you need to be aware of the challenge it takes to develop a solid reputation and standing within that firm. It will take you much longer to work your way up the ladder to a more distinguished position; in essence you are a very small fish in a rather large pond. There could be thousands of staff and over one hundred trainees all battling to move their way up.
Spend time trying to understand the true culture of the firm (and not just the one the firm writes about on their website); guides such as ‘The Training Contract and Pupillage Handbook’ can help to give a realistic picture. If trainees write that they don’t leave the office until the early hours then don’t expect it to be any different for you. If you have commitments such as childcare, or even hope to have such commitments in the near future, you may want to factor this into your decision making process. If you think you want to work for an international or American law firm take time to understand what this means in reality; if your clients work on different time zones to you then it may mean your hours are not going to be nine to five!
However, if this challenge is an appealing and encouraging option for you, the eventual foundations set by working on the most significant cases with the most notable clients is one of the best steps you could take to establish yourself as a key player in the law industry.
If you opt for a smaller firm you may expect a greater level of flexibility in your day to day practices. You will tend to be granted the autonomy to do what you feel you need to regarding your client’s case, as opposed to larger firms who may offer more structured and managerial operations due to the size of their organisation. Indeed if you looking at firms for a training contract, many lawyers cite their training at smaller law firms as being far more hands on than that of their peers at larger firms.
Having said that, in a smaller firm you may be working on lower profile cases and less opportunity to tackle the prestigious cases in your environment. If you’re looking to establish a significant status in the field of law there’s less opportunity for you to gain that kind of vast reputation in a smaller law firm.
When considering which type of firm you want to work for it’s worth basing much of your decision on what sort of law you wish to practice. Since 2008, the growing trend for the larger law firms is to specialise in just one or two bigger areas, discarding less profitable practices. Even though a larger firm may undertake work in an area you have a particular interest in, you need to pay close attention to how much revenue this work actually brings in. If it’s small in comparison to other areas then there will be fewer opportunities for lawyers and you should be careful to make a balanced application. If a recruiter has two applicants one of which has gone on and on about their enthusiasm for one of the firm’s smaller practice areas, they’re more likely to be rejected.
There’s no right or wrong answer to which size organisation you should set your sights on. The most important questions you need to ask yourself are, what kind of working life do I want for myself, which field interests me the most and how great are my career ambitions? Once you have the answers to those questions, you’ll know where you are best placed.