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Summary: While it is difficult to do, attorneys who have left large law firms for smaller ones transition back to larger law firms all the time. Here are the conditions where this works.
Attorneys interested in taking positions with smaller law firms after having worked in large, prestigious law firms are often curious whether or not it is possible to subsequently transition back. I will approach this topic by addressing the following issues.
First, I will explore some of the most common reasons attorneys give for going to work in a smaller law firm. I will then tell you why most of the reasons given are “shot down” and not accepted by large law firms if one wants to transition back.
Second, I will discuss the reasons and conditions where you can successfully transition from a small firm back to a larger law firm.
I want to note that this article is something that applies only to attorneys interested in transitioning from a large law firm to a smaller law firm and then going back to a large law firm.
Why Attorneys Want to Transition from Large to Small Law Firms
There are many reasons an attorney may want to join a smaller law firm:
This may be the only place they can find a job.
If the market is bad, many large law firms may not be hiring but you can use your “big firm credentials” and often get a position with a smaller law firm. Alternatively, you may be out of work and need a position immediately and a small law firm may be the only place you can get a job. You may be in a position where you have relocated to another part of the country for family reasons and there may only be smaller law firms there. You may have gone in-house and the only law firms that will hire you are smaller law firms.
SMALL LAW FIRM FANTASY VERSUS REALITY: If the only place you can get a job is with a small law firm (and you are currently with a large law firm), in the future, it will be hard for you to return to a large firm. Large law firms like to hire people who are coming from other large law firms—from brand names they trust and where they know that you are working with attorneys with similar credentials, clients with similar demands and are getting the same sort of training and experience you would get in their firm. If you were a large law firm, you would prefer to hire someone with the same experience and skills from a “brand name” and not a smaller law firm. Furthermore, going to work in a smaller law firm telegraphs weakness to larger law firms and makes it look like this was the only place you could get a job. Law firms will wonder why you were willing to accept a job paying much less money, working with smaller clients and so forth. Regardless of what you say, large law firms motivate with money, and if you tell them you wanted more experience, or something else, they will fear that they cannot motivate you this way as well.
They may want to see if they prefer working in a smaller law firm.
Attorneys often do not like working in larger law firms and find the hours and politics very difficult. They may want to try working in a smaller law firm to see if it is something that is more palatable to them; however, at the same time, they are unsure they want to give up working in a large law firm permanently.
SMALL LAW FIRM FANTASY VERSUS REALITY: If you take a position with a smaller law firm, it is not going to be much different than working in a large law firm. You are still going to have deadlines, stress and be doing the same sorts of things. Some of the only differences between a large law firm and a small one are that the clients are most going to be smaller and more price sensitive. This means it is going to be more difficult for you to get hours, you are not going to need to be as thorough on matters, and you will need to rush matters more. Also, you will most often have much less support to assist you and need to do more yourself. Attorneys who go from large law firms to smaller ones often are very eager to return because they find themselves doing work they considered beneath them and was done by secretaries, paralegals and even receptionists at their former law firms.
Working in large law firms means you are part of a “club.” The club means that you choose to do work with other highly motivated and competitive attorneys, for large, demanding clients, making a lot of money in the process. Once you leave this club, it is very difficult to get back in. There are certain people who thrive and do well in these sorts of atmospheres and others who do not. This atmosphere is so competitive and demanding that to succeed in it you cannot have any doubt that this is what you want to do. If there is anything in your background that shows you have any doubt, then large law firms are going to pick up on that and hire someone without this in their background instead. If you had doubts about your practice setting in the past, the idea is that you will most likely have them again
They may want an opportunity to develop business.
It is very common for law firm attorneys to conclude it will be next to impossible for them to develop business if they remain in a large law firm—large law firms are mainly only interested in large, institutional clients that are willing to pay high hourly rates. In order to develop business, you may decide you would prefer working in a smaller law firm that has lower billing rates that will allow you to bring in smaller matters. This is often a good gamble. I have seen countless attorneys transition from large law firms to smaller ones and be quite successful generating books of business and in other cases it has not worked out.
SMALL LAW FIRM FANTASY VERSUS REALITY: While you may be able to develop business in a smaller law firm, the odds are this will not be the sort of work that a large law firm is interested in. Large law firms are mostly interested in clients that can write a large, endless checks on various matters and are not that price sensitive. Smaller clients are typically price sensitive, expect lower rates and watch their bills. Moreover, larger clients most often want (and can afford) to hire large, branded law firms and are not all that interested in using small law firms. Smaller law firms are perceived often as not having as many resources, not attracting the best attorneys and other drawbacks that large clients do not need to deal with.
They may want to get a position in a new practice area they are not currently in.
It is extremely difficult for attorneys to switch practice areas within a large law firm, or between major law firms. Large law firms have plenty of people interested in working for them and do not need people with interest in switching practice areas. Moreover, they typically view people interested in switching practice areas as “high risk” because their problem is not really their practice area, it is the practice of law. You can often use your experience in a large law firm and credentials with a switch into a different practice area by moving to a smaller law firm that will hire you despite the perceived drawbacks of doing so.
SMALL LAW FIRM FANTASY VERSUS REALITY: Once you go to a smaller law firm, you may get experience in a new practice area but it is unlikely to be as sophisticated of an experience as you would get in a major law firm. For example, corporate attorneys will most often be doing smaller, less sophisticated types of transactions than they would be doing in larger law firms. While there are different calibers of smaller law firms (some are very good and well-regarded), in general if a smaller law firm is willing to hire you to transition practice areas it is likely not going to have the best reputation in its practice area—if it did it certainly would not have any difficulty hiring someone in its practice area. The experience that you get is unlikely to be the sort of experience a large law firm is interested in.
Large law firms also value stability and commitment. If you lacked stability in the past, the odds are that you may lack stability in the future as well. Large law firms can choose between plenty of people when they have positions, and in most cases, they will choose the person that has put their head down and succeeded in their practice area over the long term. When you switch practice areas, you get into all sorts of issues like the class year you are considered for purposes of compensation and partnership. Law firms are not interested in playing around with this if they do not have to. There are plenty of people without these issues.
They may want to get more “hands-on” experience—going to court and taking the lead in transactions.
Attorneys eager to get more hands-on experience often take positions with smaller law firms in the belief that they will be able to take the lead doing various types of work in a smaller law firm. They believe they will be more fulfilled and have a much better overall experience practicing law if they are in a smaller firm.
SMALL LAW FIRM FANTASY VERSUS REALITY: Smaller law firms will often give you more “hands-on” experience, but this often means that you will find yourself doing all sorts of administrative work you normally would not have to do in a larger law firm. If you are in a position where you are running litigation and transactions, this also will mean there is more opportunity for stuff to go wrong. I’ve seen many attorneys go to small law firms and end up losing their positions after making errors when taking the lead in various matters. Large law firms staff matters so many people work on them and are involved to ensure that those mistakes do not occur. I have also seen many attorneys go to smaller law firms and suddenly be given so much responsibility that they end up failing. For example, litigators may be expected to go to court and argue motions, or conduct trials. When they get what they want, they suddenly find they do not have these sorts of skills and end up losing their positions.
Large law firms also tend to look down on smaller law firms because the perception is that they do not do as good of legal work—and in most cases, unfortunately, this is somewhat true when contrasted with larger law firms. You may be getting more experience and doing a lot of different things, but this will often come at the expense of doing the best legal work possible. The clients of large law firms can afford to have the best possible legal work done and demand it. Large law firms divide their work up and have a whole hierarchy that results in the best people doing each part of a task involved in whatever matter is being worked on. This results in the best possible legal work being done. Large clients can afford to have matters worked on this way because they have larger budgets. Attorneys at smaller law firms often end up cutting corners, and their work product suffers at smaller law firms.
They may want lower hours.
Attorneys from large law firms are often under the belief that attorneys do not work as hard in smaller law firms. The clients of many smaller law firms are less demanding, cannot afford as much work and the partners in smaller law firms do not want to make as much money. This often results in lower hours and billable hour requirements in a smaller law firm. It is not unusual for a smaller law firm to target 1,500 hours a year for their associates and partners.
SMALL LAW FIRM FANTASY VERSUS REALITY: All law firms are businesses. Businesses are run by individuals interested in earning money. Many small law firms were started by people interested in making more money than they could make (with their small clients) at large law firms. Small law firms may bring you into work for them with the idea that you can work fewer hours; however, if they have the opportunity to make more money, by doing more work for clients, they will get it done—and this means more hours. Also, the idea that you will work fewer hours in a small law firm is somewhat naïve because it does not factor into account the fact that things get busy when transactions are closing (in corporate, real estate and other practice areas) and litigation gets busy when motions need to be filed, trials are occurring and other pressing matters happen. In short, as much as an attorney would like to, they cannot control their hours in smaller law firms in most instances. There are some practice areas that may be exceptions to this rule (ERISA, tax, patent, trademark, trusts, and estates); however, these are exceptions and not the rule.
At least a few times a week I speak with attorneys from small law firms that took positions there with the expectation they would work fewer hours and this was misrepresented to them and now they want to return to the large law firm. Unfortunately, this is not a good reason for wanting to return to a large law firm. If you left a large law firm because of the hours, you do not like the hours and will find a way to get out of the long hours in the future as well—whether it is going in-house, or to another practice setting. Large law firms know this and can pick up on it.
Conditions Where You Can Successfully Transition Back to a Large Law Firm After Going to a Smaller Law Firm
While it is difficult to do, attorneys who have left large law firms for smaller ones transition back to larger law firms all the time. I make numerous placements of attorneys doing this each year and have attorneys in this situation interviewing constantly. Here are the conditions where this works.
You Are at a Highly-Regarded Smaller Law Firm With Top Clients With Well-Known Former Big Firm Attorneys With Lots of Business
If you go to a truly outstanding smaller law firm that does work for major clients and has well-known attorneys with top credentials in it, then moving back to a large law firm should not be overly difficult. The problem with this, though, is that these firms are rare—but they do exist in every decent-sized market. If you can find a law firm where the work and attorneys in it are highly respected, it should not be overly difficult for you to move back to a large law firm after moving to a firm like this.
These law firms are relatively easy to find in most markets. All you need to do is look for law firms that are comprised of people from top law firms and law schools who are doing work for major clients. In many cases, these are newer law firms, but they are not always. These law firms are most often known to other attorneys in the market, pay well, have a reputation for working hard and doing good work and are not considered a major step down. These firms often become major law firms in the future. While there are no major drawbacks to working in a smaller law firm like this, these sorts of firms are typically not much different than working in a major firm.
You Develop a Significant, Growing Book of Business
Attorneys can often develop growing books of business when they go to smaller law firms. I have seen attorneys who did not have business move to smaller law firms and develop books that were well over $1,000,000 within a few years of joining the smaller law firm.
It is important to understand that larger law firms prefer predictable revenue. That means they are most likely to be interested in ongoing work and not small, one-off projects for various clients. They also are going to demand that clients can pay their rates as well. If you develop a book of business at a small law firm that you can transition to a large law firm, law firms will be willing to speak with you. To get the attention of most law firms, this book of business will generally need to be around the following:
A major law firm in a major city (Los Angeles, Chicago, New York), with no need: $2,000,000 to $5,000,000+
A branch offfice of a major firm in a major city (Los Angeles, Chicago, New York), with no need: $1,000,000+ but over often over $1,000,000
A large firm in a middle market city (Detroit, San Diego), with no need: $500,000+ but closer to $750,000+
A branch office of a large law firm in a middle market city (Detroit, San Diego), with no need: $500,000+ but closer to $750,000+
Branch offices tend to be easier to get positions with because it is often harder for them to attract top talent in the markets they open offices in—but not always.
If a law firm needs a senior level person to work on matters, then the book of business can often be lower. These sorts of openings are quite rare, however.
Large law firms love to hire up-and-coming attorneys with growing books of business because if they are hungry and generating business when they are young, the odds are this will improve in the future.
You Have Experience in a Rare, Niche Practice Area
In many instances, large law firms will find themselves under pressure to hire people in rare, niche subject matter areas where they do not have any existing people. These areas often include patent prosecution, tax, trust and estates, data privacy, white collar litigation, environmental, appellate, and bankruptcy. There are also many small, respected law firms that are considered specialists in many of these niche practice areas—some do nothing but practice in these areas. If you are at a law firm where you are getting experience in a niche subject matter, you will often have a good chance of transitioning back to a large law firm later on.
One practice area where it is very common for small law firm attorneys to transition back to major law firms is patent law. There are countless well-respect patent boutiques all over the country where attorneys get experience in discrete areas of patent law, often doing work for major clients. It is not uncommon for Microsoft, as one example, to use small firms of just a few attorneys to work on its patents. There are some exceptional ERISA, executive compensation, tax, trademark, telecom, food and drug law, health law, bankruptcy and other boutiques that have very good reputations in the legal market. These specialist law firms are often brought in on various matters when large law firms do not have people there who can do the work. These firms draw in top attorneys. The more niche a practice area is, the better. If you have niche experience within that niche, all the better.
Large law firms have clients that need niche experience and the largest law firms often justify their high billing rates by having very niche attorneys. An attorney who has experience in a discrete subject matter is more likely to work more efficiently and be worth more on an hourly basis that a generalist. Large law firms sell this idea.
You Develop an Outstanding Reputation in the Legal Community at the Smaller Law Firm
I have seen associates, partners and others who impressed major law firms and were hired by them.
Associates and partners will often develop such a strong reputation in the legal community working at smaller law firms that large law firms will hire them.
In one case an associate I knew from a small law firm faced off in court in a trial against a partner from a larger law firm. The partner was so impressed with the associate’s performance at trial that he offered him a job. The associate had no business working in this major firm—his educational and firm pedigree was such that he would never have gotten in the door otherwise.
In another case, I saw a partner from a small law firm get a position with a major law firm after doing a transaction with them. The small law firm attorney worked extremely hard on the transaction, and at the end of it, a few attorneys on the other side said: “We’ve never seen someone from a small law firm work so hard and be so thorough on a transaction” and they hired him [or her].
If you work hard, are nice to others and are effective in a smaller law firm, large law firms will often be impressed with you and hire you.
A final method to get the attention of large law firms is to become a well-regarded and recognized expert in your subject matter in the legal community. Go out and give talks to bar associations, in-house counsel, etc., lead CLE programs, write articles, and be seen in the legal community. Do exceptional work and impress other attorneys. All of these things put you in a position to get hired by large law firms when they have a need—and in many cases even when they do not.
Your Small Firm Merges into a Major Law Firm
If you go to a growing, small law firm that is comprised of former big firm attorneys and is doing work for mid-sized to larger clients – the odds are very good this firm will be approached by large law firms at some point in the future as a merger target. The leaders of these small law firms often conclude they are not interested in management—managing finances, hiring, firing, leasing offices and so forth—and merging with large law firms looks attractive to them. When these mergers happen, the attorneys from the small law firm are brought right along. In many cases, many attorneys end up at firms that never would have hired them to begin with. Whenever I see a small law firm that is a “player” and doing well and attracting top talent and large clients, I almost always know that there is a good chance this firm is likely to merge into a larger firm at some point in the future.
A Partner You Work With at the Small Law Firm Moves to a Major Firm
If you are working for a partner with a lot of business and large clients, the odds are good that he will be courted at some point by a larger law firm and consider going there. While many attorneys with substantial books of business prefer the control they get working for smaller law firms, in many instances they conclude they are most interested in the reputation of a larger law firm, the ability to farm work out to more attorneys, the better support offered by larger law firms and the other benefits working for a large law firm provides. I have even seen the founders of many small law firms end up moving to major law firms—alone or with a few attorneys.
If you are working at a small law firm and interested in making this sort of move, all you need to do is find the attorney or attorneys in your firm who would be most likely to move. She would need to have a large book of business most likely and have large clients that would not be too sensitive to a hourly rate increase if she were to move firms.
You Go to the Branch Office of a Major Firm in a Small Market
Branch offices of major law firms in smaller markets often have difficulty attracting top talent in various practices areas—the more niche the better. Major firms often open offices in smaller markets (Las Vegas, Memphis, Aspen, Madison, Santa Fe) and similar markets to service major clients—or out of convenience for partners with large books of business who move there. If these firms have a need, it is often difficult for them to attract native talent, or attorneys from large law firms, and they need to settle on attorneys from smaller law firms. The more geographically flexible you are in your search, the easier it will be for you to find a job.
You Can Get Lucky and Be Hired in a Major Economic Boom
I have seen many attorneys from small law firms get hired in major economic booms when they normally would not have been. For example, in the period of 1998 to through late 2000, countless corporate attorneys from small law firms were snapped up like mad from small law firms all over the country for work in New York and Palo Alto, in particular. These attorneys were not graduates of top law schools and did not have sophisticated experience—there was just a ton of demand in the market. At these points in history, if you were at the right place at the right time, you could move without any difficulty.
You Apply at the Right Time and Apply to Enough Places
To get back to a large law firm, you are generally going to need a recruiter who believes in you and has a large network of firms they can market you to. Each month, I place attorneys back in large firms, who had previously moved from large firms to small firms. These attorneys apply to a lot of places and will often be marketed all over the country to find the right position. Getting into the right law firm is often a question of timing (the law firm having a position and you being one of the first to apply) and also often something about your background capturing the attention of the right person at the right time. Getting a position is often a game of numbers.
It is possible to transition from a small to a large law firm; it happens all the time. It is important to realize the obstacles you will have when attempting to do this, however. These are serious obstacles and something that will require you to be calculating and make a series of the right decisions to overcome.
Share Your Thoughts
Ex: Working in large law firms means you are part of a “club.” The club means that you choose to do work with other highly motivated and competitive attorneys, for large, demanding clients, making a lot of money in the process. Once you leave this club, it is very difficult to get back in. While it is difficult to do, attorneys who have left large law firms for smaller ones transition back to larger law firms all the time. I make numerous placements of attorneys doing this each year and have attorneys in this situation interviewing constantly. What other conditions do you think work in moving from smaller firm to a larger one? Share your responses to this question and your thoughts about how to transition back into a larger firm in the comments below.
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