Does (Firm) Size Really Matter? | BCGSearch.com

Does (Firm) Size Really Matter?

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Like businesses as a whole, law practices come in all manner of sizes, from a solo shop all the way up through a 3,000+ attorney global mega firm, and everywhere in between. Many attorneys express a preference on general firm size in a lateral job search, because they have an impression that a particular size means particular things in terms of the firm culture, work opportunities, work-life balance, and overall fit. That can certainly all be true, but depending on what factor is driving that preference (e.g., a desire for collegiality, for broad assignment opportunities, for support in client development, etc.), it is a much more complex analysis to put together the right list of target firms than simply going by the overall size of the firm as a whole.
Does (Firm) Size Really Matter?

The following are a couple things I always like to point out to my candidates if they express a general preference for a particular size of firm, depending on their reasons for doing so:

Office Size


A firm may be a 3,000+ global mega firm with dozens of offices in various countries around the world, but just because a firm is big, the size of the office in the city where you are looking to relocate may not be, and that can have a dramatic impact on how it feels to work there relative to the stereotypical differences between big and small firms. A 20-person office at a large overall firm may have a much more intimate, personal, and collegial feel than the 75-person office that is the only office of a mid-size regional firm. Thus, if you are looking for a situation where you know everyone in an office and aren't just one of hundreds of attorneys, don't automatically pass over a "big" firm. Spend the few moments it takes to look at the size of the particular office in the location where you would be practicing.

Practice Group Size

Similarly to office size, the size of a given practice group within a particular office can have a large impact on both the "feel" of working at a firm, as well as the scope of opportunity available to you, which can be especially important as a more junior-level attorney. An office might have 200 attorneys, but if you are a patent prosecutor and the patent prosecution group in that office only has two partners and one other associate, guess what - you will almost always be working with those same three attorneys.

Along similar lines, it is helpful to research how large the overall practice group is at the firm as a whole, and whether assignments are always office-based, or are cross-collaborative in the sense that you might be working for partners in multiple offices. This can factor into the scope of opportunities you will be exposed to, usually the broader the better, but it can also mean that you have to be "on" and "available" for partners in multiple time zones if your particular office won't have enough direct work to keep you busy, which can dramatically impact your work schedule and thus your quality of life.

Another point to consider in this same category is how much you want to be the "go-to" attorney in your practice area. If you are the only attorney in an office with experience in international tax matters, then you will receive the majority of that work. This can be a double-edged sword. If you like that type of work, then it is great, and you also enjoy the added bonus of being more indispensable to the firm than if there were a half-dozen attorneys with your same skill set. On the other hand, you run the risk of being pigeon-holed into a particular niche practice area because everyone relies on you and you alone for that skillset. Whether a particular situation is good or bad in this regard is up to you and your long-term career goals, but either way it is worth thinking about.

Promotions and Firm Politics

If you are looking for a smaller, more collegial environment, it is very possible to find that at a large firm if you are working in a smaller office. The potential downside of being in a smaller office is that the firm's leadership/location of power is typically centered by nature in one of the firm's largest offices. The track to partnership is difficult, and involves many factors, but one indispensable factor is having a champion for the progression of your career in the form of a more senior partner on the partnership committee who is willing to go to bat for you. Even if you have such a relationship, that partner may not be as effective of an advocate if they do not interact as regularly with the general leadership, or do not have the same kind of rainmaking pull as a big partner in the big central office.

If you are hoping to eventually advance to partner, especially at a larger firm where the opportunities are few and your colleague competitors are many, it is very much worth considering how realistically you can develop the necessary relationships with enough senior partners, especially those who have pull on the partnership committee, something that may be more or less possible depending on the size of the office relative to the overall size of the firm.

Business Development

A counterpoint to the prior section, where it might be better to be in a larger office than a smaller office, is how much potential you have at a given size of firm (and size of office) to develop your own book of business. In a larger office with a couple rainmaker partners who farm out their work to a pool of associates, you may be stuck working away in relative obscurity for years without getting the attention of a senior partner, or having much in the way of client interaction. But if you are at a smaller office where matters are more leanly staffed, you might have the opportunity for more high-level experience and direct client interaction earlier on in your career, both of which are extremely important to client development. In particular, if you are the sole mid-level associate of a particular office, and will thus always be staffed on matters for the partners in that office, you are more likely to be included in client pitches, business dinners, and local industry panels and presentations, all of which can represent solid exposure for you and your career.

Additionally, a lot of business at large firms is legacy business, so if you can position yourself well at a smaller office and become the right-hand of the right partner, you may stand a good chance of inheriting that business down the road.

In short, it is worth exploring during the interview process how promotions are handled, how much support and encouragement is given to associates in their business development efforts, and the track record of a particular office in terms of promoting associates to partner relative to the rest of the firm. Sometimes the bigger firm or bigger office is better, sometimes the smaller firm or smaller office is better, but it is a case-by-case basis where the general headcount is often uninformative at a glance.

Newness of the Office

Sometimes how big a firm is can matter a lot less than how new it is, and the same goes for a particular office within a firm. For instance, a number of larger, longstanding national and international firms have only begun to establish a west coast presence over the past decade or two. Getting in on the "ground floor" of a particular office can mean you immediately jump the line, so to speak, in terms of relative seniority, potential for promotion, and positions within the overall firm leadership. Particularly at the partner level, you may find yourself having more influence and more leeway to handle business as you see fit at the newer and smaller office of a large firm than the mid-size office of a regional firm that has been established for many decades.

The flipside of this is that newer and smaller offices can often feel like an afterthought to the firm leadership in terms of resources (and particularly hiring resources), as well as marketing and promotional support for that office's business development efforts. It is worth exploring in the interview process how resources are allocated to that office, how much discretion the office leadership has to run things as they see fit rather than be beholden to a far-away central hiring or management committee, and the track record of that office's expansion efforts, hiring, and retention.

Conclusion

As you can see from the above, there are many more moving parts and salient factors to whether a firm might offer what you are looking for rather than just going by general "firm size." Firms big and small can be collegial, or incredibly toxic, depending on the firm and the office. Business may be easier or harder to develop depending on many factors beyond just attorney headcount. And your work opportunities may be enhanced or limited, depending on whether you are looking for breadth of experience and the opportunity to work with a wide variety of partners and clients, or if you prefer to develop deep expertise in a particular niche area or establish a longstanding working relationship with a few select partners.

You should do your own research on all these factors, ideally before becoming too heavily invested in any particular set of firms, but definitely before making any decisions on joining a law firm that may impact your career in the long-term. And of course a good legal recruiter should be able to guide you through this process and have solid information on the factors listed above.

As always, best of luck with your law firm job search!

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is a prominent figure in the legal placement industry, known for his expertise in attorney placements and his extensive knowledge of the legal profession.

With over 25 years of experience, he has established himself as a leading voice in the field and has helped thousands of lawyers and law students find their ideal career paths.

Barnes is a former federal law clerk and associate at Quinn Emanuel and a graduate of the University of Chicago College and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at the University of Chicago and a member of the University of Virginia Law Review. Early in his legal career, he enrolled in Stanford Business School but dropped out because he missed legal recruiting too much.

Barnes' approach to the legal industry is rooted in his commitment to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. He believes that the key to success in the legal profession is to be proactive, persistent, and disciplined in one's approach to work and life. He encourages lawyers to take ownership of their careers and to focus on developing their skills and expertise in a way that aligns with their passions and interests.

One of how Barnes provides support to lawyers is through his writing. On his blog, HarrisonBarnes.com, and BCGSearch.com, he regularly shares his insights and advice on a range of topics related to the legal profession. Through his writing, he aims to empower lawyers to control their careers and make informed decisions about their professional development.

One of Barnes's fundamental philosophies in his writing is the importance of networking. He believes that networking is a critical component of career success and that it is essential for lawyers to establish relationships with others in their field. He encourages lawyers to attend events, join organizations, and connect with others in the legal community to build their professional networks.

Another central theme in Barnes' writing is the importance of personal and professional development. He believes that lawyers should continuously strive to improve themselves and develop their skills to succeed in their careers. He encourages lawyers to pursue ongoing education and training actively, read widely, and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

In addition to his work in the legal industry, Barnes is also a fitness and lifestyle enthusiast. He sees fitness and wellness as integral to his personal and professional development and encourages others to adopt a similar mindset. He starts his day at 4:00 am and dedicates several daily hours to running, weightlifting, and pursuing spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Barnes is a strong advocate for community service and giving back. He volunteers for the University of Chicago, where he is the former area chair of Los Angeles for the University of Chicago Admissions Office. He also serves as the President of the Young Presidents Organization's Century City Los Angeles Chapter, where he works to support and connect young business leaders.

In conclusion, Harrison Barnes is a visionary legal industry leader committed to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. Through his work at BCG Attorney Search, writing, and community involvement, he empowers lawyers to take control of their careers, develop their skills continuously, and lead fulfilling and successful lives. His philosophy of being proactive, persistent, and disciplined, combined with his focus on personal and professional development, makes him a valuable resource for anyone looking to succeed in the legal profession.


About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives


Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.


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