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Small Firm Life


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There is a perception that going to a small firm means that attorneys do not bill the crazy hours of a large firm. This is sometimes true; however, it can also be a trap.
Small Firm Life

A Discussion of Small Firm Life

Much of my job entails listening to attorneys talk about why they feel they need a change.  Often, my candidates will announce that they are looking for an opportunity with a small firm.  I have found, however, that attorneys sometimes have misperceptions about small firm life.

I myself was an associate at a small/mid-size firm in Washington, DC firm.  My firm had all the great stuff associates often seek in a small firm: reasonable hours, near-lockstep equity partnership, nice people, and an excellent lifestyle. However, I realize since becoming a legal recruiter that I was very, very lucky, and that this is not always the case.  If you are considering a move to a small firm, you need to understand some of the realities of small firm life.

Myth #1:  Small Firm= Less Hours.

There is a perception that going to a small firm means that attorneys do not bill the crazy hours of a large firm.  This is sometimes true; however, it can also be a trap.  Keep in mind that small firms tend to feel economic pressure more quickly and directly than a large firm might, and they must work hard to keep costs down for their clients.  Therefore, small firms can be more sensitive to the efficiency of an associate’s billed work than large firms (this is also the reason why many smaller firms will not hire new grads, only lateral associates).  Some small firms may actively or passively encourage associates not to bill for time worked.  For example, I have seen associates in small firms not bill their time at all for “getting up to speed” when they need to familiarize themselves with a new subject matter area, whereas this happens less in large firms (where partners may simply write the work off, but the associate is not expected to).  Because small firms tend to value efficiency of work over number of hours billed, a small firm associate may easily work just as many hours as her large firm counterpart, she just won’t necessarily bill for those hours.

Myth #2: Small Firm= More Congenial Atmosphere.

Another issue I have seen pop up in small firms is political in nature.  While it is true that many small firms are populated with wonderful, pleasant attorneys, this is not true in every small firm. If an associate gets stuck with a partner or practice area she is unhappy with, it can be very difficult to make a change within a small firm.  This isn’t to say that this scenario never happens in large firms; it absolutely does.  However, I have seen large firm associates who are savvy and realistic transition to other practice areas or work providers within the same firm.  If they are very lucky, they end up on another floor and rarely have to see the partner or group they left.  In a small firm, it is far more likely that an unhappy associate can make such a change, and even if they do manage, they may end up having to deal with that partner regularly anyway.

Myth #3: Small Firm= More Opportunities to Build Client Base

Often associates perceive that because smaller firms tend to attract smaller clients, they will have greater opportunities to build clientele and become equity partners.   This is a logical assumption, and is often the case.  However, the flip side of the coin is that sometimes, name partners refuse to retire (large firms sometimes have mandatory retirement ages).  I have seen this countless times, and have had many attorneys come to me as 20-year associates looking to be placed in a larger firm where they can become partner.  Small firms often do not have a lockstep partner system, and promote only as needed, which may mean never.   It depends entirely upon the firm, and it is up to each job-seeker to figure out what type of firm she is talking to.

In sum, each small firm is different.  Don’t make assumptions based solely on the number of attorneys in a firm.  It is up to the job-seeker to ask herself what she finds acceptable in a small firm atmosphere, and what she doesn’t, and then to figure out which small firms may provide what she is looking for.

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,, and, 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

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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