"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?"  

This essay tells you:  

Everything your placement office should have told you the moment you weren't in the top 10%.


These are the real answers.  A quick brush by what you need to know if you are in a "big firm" and another for those of you intent on solo practice.  I skip the government and academia.

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. Call (312) 988-5555 for overnight delivery.  That book is all you need, this essay is immaterial.

If you have gone solo there is also a single essential volume. 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, this book covers just about everything you need to know. Call (312) 988-5555 for overnight delivery.

If you are somewhere in between a large firm and solo practice -- this essay is for you.  Keep tabs on your law school's placement office by subscribing to their services. Then read the following material for advice, guidance and suggestions regarding things to be aware of and ways to act that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your legal practice. Note that CHOOSING A LOCATION FOR THE PRACTICE OF LAW (Resource Handbook 1992) is a related essay and also should be reviewed.

Life as an Associate (in a small firm), Part One

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 did the founder(s) have that made them able to create a successful practice? It was not management skills; they are lawyers -- not MBAs; and 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 their own in the first place, to keep trying and tough it out, and a personality suited to doing a lot of work. The firm exits because the founder(s) were "tough enough" to build and create a firm. Their egos know that they built the firm. Which means that in the mind of the original partners, a small firm is their property. It is what their work and risk taking has entitled them to have.

Let me give you an example from two of the nicest guys I've met (and who are no longer in practice where I met them). They 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." No room or thought for change. Just a goal to give "excess" work to a nameless associate to handle. Neither partner had the time or inclination to train the associate. Obviously (in the mind of the partners) associates come ready trained -- isn't that what law school is for?

(Seriously, 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 associate 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 a potential partner; a law firm run by people with no business management skill or experience and no room for the associate to grow. Fine for a "0 to 1 year experience" nameless face, but no place for the same person four or five years later.

All the original partners had in this situation was strong egos and the ability to work, fight for their place and endure until they won. You can bet that these skills carried over into how they managed their law office. (I went to work in a different state.)

In evaluating any law office, including the two guys I mentioned, keep in mind that associates are hired for business reasons -- not out of the good of someone's heart. Those original partners are going to hire associates to make money in the short run. This is an endemic mind set and practice in small law offices.

A firm makes money with associates by paying them less than they bring in. If a small firm pays an associate more, it means that it is paying the founding partners less. Small firm associate pay levels are generally perceived in "zero sum" terms by the founders of said firms.

As these small firms age, they take natural steps. First, the firm has more business than the founder(s) 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 property and their investment. They begin to have the time and money to enjoy the pursuits money can bring.

For the partners to maintain that income, and still have time to enjoy it, someone must do the work and get paid less than they 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 $200.00 an hour and averaging $650,000.00 a year you can bet it isn't coming from the hours they are working. (It isn't that common either!).

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

As time passes, associates find that they can't progress financially without the money coming out of the partners. It is a zero sum game where 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 hard risks, and have built a practice that is theirs. They fought to get it and they will fight to keep it. And, all partners remember that 50% of small firms began when overworked associates left 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'm talking about.

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 school ignores.

Well, you can drop out of the practice of law. Between 40% and 50% of all law school graduates drop out. There are very real options to the practice of law.

You can sue your law school for taking your money and not preparing you at all for the kind of practice of law that any idiot knows that you (and most of your friends) have to go in to. 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.

Life as an Associate, Part Two

The real question is what to 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. Anyone reading this essay probably wants to know the answer. Just because you understand why your current situation seems like a dead end, doesn't mean you like it.

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

The first thing to do is to take the long view. You put in four years in college and three in law school. Now is not the time to take the short term view. If LDS you also put in two years on a mission and an extra (on the average) two years in school. After eleven years you ought to be able to take the long view.

In saying "take the long view" I'm 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 is just an invitation to grief as are many other career changes.

I'm not suggesting that you go to work for a legal corporation (like Hyatt). 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 be prepared for those changes and succeed or not be prepared and end up perpetually frustrated.

The first part of being prepared is knowing about 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 by law school grades and not by good looks, but on the basis of need and experience. I knew at least five associates the year this essay was first written who had their current jobs because they were recruited by other attorneys who liked their work. Four of the associates did not know they were looking for a new job until they got the offers. I knew two partners that had the same story.

Believe it or not, it is easy for other attorneys to see your work even if you are hidden in a closet. You start work at a small firm. The quality of work goes up, the quality goes down or stays the same. Given that hiring you is the only change, it doesn't matter if your name goes on the briefs or if you sign the pleadings. The change (or lack of change) reflects directly on you and your work.

This means that attention to quality is important. Every time you feel cheated or upset, take some extra time and do a better job. It may be your bosses' money (they are paying you) but it is your reputation and skill that is getting better.

Every time you have a choice between being ethical and being a slime, be ethical. It may be the firm's 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. Always meet people.

As an associate you have three important goals. You want to learn how to do good work, to have a good ethical reputation and to 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 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 that firm 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 right up the ladder. 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. The work resulted in his winning some trials. After the third trial he won; 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 it 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 my friend.

If my friend 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.

I still remember listening to some attorneys in that situation.  I was feeling that way.  I then had an a.v. rated attorney ask me if I'd like to go partners with him. He had just lost his associate to another firm who liked the work the associate had done.

He had seen improvements in my firm's work, sat through a couple depositions with me and needed someone who 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).

None of the people/partners/attorneys in charge could see making one of their associates a partner (or even giving them a decent raise). The attorney who offered me a job has lost at least ten associates I've met personally. He could never see sharing either his firm with them or sharing his clients. But he could see it with someone who came in from the outside.

The trick to surviving the depressing, unforeseen and bleak times in a dead end job is to realize that the dead end is the firm's problem and not your problem. 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. Everyone else has.

Part Three, The Last Word

On the Long Run Successful practice of law

Texas is known for its trial lawyers. While New York and California lead the nation in successful corporate attorneys and while Oregon and Alaska lead the nation in environmental law, Texas trial lawyers are the most successful in the nation.

In the last several years I have had the opportunity of watching one of the three best trial lawyers in Texas as both co-counsel and as opposing counsel. Watching H. Dustin Fillmore in action has taught me as much about the successful practice of law as has any other element of my legal education. It has also shaped my practice and my attitudes.

Four things characterize Mr. Fillmore: honesty, fairness, caring and humility. These four basics are the foundation of his success.


Dustin Fillmore is locally famous for being always honest in his briefs, in his letters, in his conversations and in his actions. He is honest with judges, with opposing attorneys and with clients. One of the most powerful tools Dustin Fillmore has in any litigation is his powerful reputation for personal honesty.

The impact of continuous and unflinching personal and intellectual honesty is stronger than his brilliant legal skills or his past successes. Judges believe him, with good reason, and routinely rule in his favor. Clients believe him and regularly return to him when they need someone they can trust. Other attorneys believe him and extend him more professional courtesy and consideration than is common.

Being honest is something any attorney can do. It does not matter where you placed in your class, what school you graduated from, how tall you are, what race or what sex, any attorney can be truly honest. It is a sad commentary that personal honesty is such a powerful tool because it means that many and most attorneys are not honest.


Hand-in-hand with honesty goes fairness. A reputation for fairness gives an attorney a potent edge in any situation where a judge is called upon to exercise discretion or where settlement negotiations are being conducted.

I still remember one of the first protective order hearings I attended. After an hour of reviewing cases and rules of procedure, the Honorable Temple Driver turned to one of the attorneys and, denying a protective order, said "take care of it and do what is fair."

The judge gave the attorney carte blanche to inflict up to ten times the value of the case in discovery costs because he knew that he could trust the attorney to do what was fair. In a similar vein, I have seen judges award exactly the sanctions that Dustin Fillmore was calling for because they trusted that the sanction was both legitimate (they trusted Dustin's honesty in citing the law) and deserved (they trusted Dustin's fairness).

The reverse is much more common. A large number of cases are not settled each year and go forward to trial because a settlement could not be negotiated -- not because settlement was not desirable -- but because the attorneys involved could not trust the honesty or the fairness of the other side's proposals.


Caring about clients is important. Not only can clients tell whether or not you care about them, but it affects the attitudes of the attorney and the kind of work the attorney does.

When an attorney cares about the real people and entities that are his or her clients, that attorney is more effective.

Caring results in constant thought, awareness and diligence. It also communicates itself during negotiations and to a jury. The attorney who cares is much more effective.


Many trial lawyers lose their humility. Juries begin to notice, associates feel the impact and judges are offended. The natural result is an eventual loss of trials, clients and success. On the opposite side, humility is a forceful tool.

It allows an attorney to evaluate a case unaffected by pride or personal considerations. It avoids offense. It completes the individual. Attorneys who retain their humility are happier and healthier human beings and better family members. They have more successful legal practices, but more importantly, they have more successful lives.

Dustin Fillmore's humility results in accessibility and friendliness. Even bitter litigation does not destroy the respect others have for him. It is probably the reason why, of the three most successful litigation attorneys in Texas, Dustin Fillmore is the most respected by his peers and colleagues.

If I were advising a potential lawyer about the steps they could take to reach long term success, I would advise them to emulate the factors that have made H. Dustin Fillmore more than just another trial lawyer. Honesty, fairness, caring and humility are reliable foundation for success in the practice of law.

Attention to the long term impact of any action that is not honest, fair, respectful of client needs or respectful of others will show that the short term benefit cannot justify deviation.

Success is not winning just one big case or in prevailing in the current battle. Successful practice of law is success at the life long exercise of being a professional, the heart of which is professional action, courtesy and manners. Honesty, fairness, caring and humility capture the heart of what professionalism truly is.

Not only do they capture the heart of what professionalism truly is, these four attributes are ones that do not require grades in the top 10%, law review experience, a United States Supreme Court Clerkship or any other limiting factor. They are things each and every student of the law can obtain by simply choosing to embrace them. I would advise every prospective lawyer to do so.

Suggested Reading:

Elgin, Syllabus.

Choosing a Location For the Practice of Law


Most of the graduates from this (or any other) 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 essay consists of two parts. First, which small firms you should consider, which ones you should avoid and which ones you should be careful of. Second, the considerations that you can use in picking the physical location (i.e. the State and County) where you will practice law.


The majority of people who find employment with a small firm find only "temporary" employment. Most small firms turn over somewhere between 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 after fourteen.

Small firm attrition is no worse than large firm attrition. 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 gain those characteristics. 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 of competent attorneys who they like and who attract clients).

In evaluating a firm, look for the leading indicators that reflect that firm having what you need to gain the 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.

Reputation with 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.

You want a firm that does quality work. You need to 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 for both your clients and yourself.

The second base, Sociability with other lawyers ("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 the meetings and activities, or holds offices, then she is sociable. If he derides the bar association, considers 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 obtain that virtue. 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).

You want a sociable firm. You should be leery of a reclusive and hostile firm. As long as time and output requirements are reasonable, you can learn to be sociable -- again on your own time, if necessary.

Finally, you want a firm that will allow you client contact. 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 first cut, the last hired, 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 illusive 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; something that law school did not address, small firms are unprepared to do, and 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.


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 within the 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 back-ground information. You look 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 ~200 persons is obviously more competitive than South Carolina with about one attorney per ~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 you should look at the location and economy first, the firms there second.

For two examples look at both Portland and Coos Bay in Oregon. Portland has been generally moribund for the past ten years, with some recent improvement. Coos Bay has grown from a prospective wild life refuge into an important port. Its growth may be tapering off now. (these examples are dated 1989 -- they are not a substitute for your own 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. The cities have very different weather, locations and personalities. Then, 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, thus easier in Coos Bay than in Portland), and shoot for a summer clerkship in one of the communities. (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 a good place to look.

If your search is successful, you will land a clerkship at a firm in the area you are interested in. Your reputation with other law firms (and thus your ability to be hired) starts with your first day clerking.

While clerking you can do your best to evaluate local small firms (mostly small partnerships) in terms of their need for another lawyer/associate, their competence, their sociability, and how their clients perceive them. Watch for warning signs, look for positive notes.

Do remember that in today's economy, most clerkships at small firms are not going to be economically competitive with summer jobs. Unlike "big firms" where less than 30% of your class will go for clerkships, small firms generally balance the inexpense and possible quality of a clerk/new associate over the ease and benefit of a lateral hire, with many (if not most) going for lateral hires as a matter of course. Unless your survival is at stake, money is never a significant feature for evaluating a clerkship.

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, associates don't 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 sociality -- completely unimportant to large firms. Then is client contact and satisfaction -- generally an area alien to large firm associates. Finally, is the reasonableness of the number of hours worked -- 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. While most of those who read this essay will be interviewing with small firms because of the traditional reasons, it is my hope that this essay will help each person who goes into small firm practice to successfully choose which small firms to practice with.


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)

* Nationally, Insurance Defense Partners in 1989 averaged $156,468; at the 90th percentile $243,740. Plaintiff's lawyers averaged $204,171; at the 90th percentile $391,204. This gives a difference of ~$50,000.00 -- I used ~$20,000.00 to reflect numbers closer to Texas statistics rather than the nation as a whole.

Return (Thriving in Law School, Surviving Legal Practice) / Index

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©1990-1999 Stephen R. Marsh All Rights Reserved

This essay was originally drafted in 1990.  Since then it has been used by two law school placement offices and several placement officers.  With substantial feedback, it is now in the format you see it in the 1999 version.  [Download the wordprocessor file]

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