GPSOLO January/February 2009
Being a General Practitioner in a Big Firm
I have been very fortunate over the years to have practiced in a variety of firm settings and practice areas. I began my legal career 31 years ago in a four-person firm and then moved to a ten-plus person firm where I practiced for 19 years. I became a solo for the next eight years and then a judge for five years before returning to private practice as a sole practitioner. During these many years of practice, the majority of which were spent as a “big” firm lawyer, I have always considered myself a general practitioner.
In law school I envisioned myself practicing business law. My preparation and focus in law school were in the areas of business formation, partnerships, and taxation of individuals and corporations. Things didn’t exactly work out as I planned.
I have used my law school training in these specialized areas frequently, but never to the extent I had planned. Instead, I learned how to prepare and present subrogation cases, represent clients in divorce and criminal proceedings, prepare real estate contracts and deeds, handle a probate, as well as defend insureds in tort matters and medical malpractice matters. You see, my first firm was primarily an insurance defense firm, far from what I thought I would be doing after graduation. But a job is a job, particularly if you’re from a small town in southern New Mexico.
Law school, I learned, was far too early to begin specializing. If you are too specialized, you may limit your employment possibilities, not only by practice area but geographically as well. I also learned that even large firms need to have generalists or at least lawyers who can practice in different areas in order to provide or offer full service to their clients. I believe that my willingness to be flexible enough to consider multiple practice areas made me more marketable.
Do not assume that a general practice is inconsistent or incompatible with a “big” firm practice setting. Every large firm has its litigation department, its business department, and perhaps estate planning, real estate, school law, or many other niche practice areas. Law is a profession, but the practice of law is a business, and law firm management is always anxious to explore new and different ways to add to the bottom line. Large clients have their primary focus, but what happens when the CEO of your largest client has a son who has a criminal matter that needs attention or a mother who has an estate planning or Social Security issue? That client who may pay your firm hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in fees may not be too happy if your firm has to refer him elsewhere. It may affect your long-term relationship with the client. I’ve seen it happen. As an associate, you may be called upon to handle these matters. You must and should be prepared to handle these situations, not only for the client but your professional development as well.
I soon came to realize that being a generalist was the best thing that ever happened to me, even if more than half of my career was spent in a medium to large firm setting. I believe that because I could practice in more than one area, I became a partner much sooner. My value to the firm was recognized by all of the partners whose clients I helped in different ways. I was able and willing to practice in areas that they either did not wish to or had forgotten how to practice in. The fees were kept in the firm, thus increasing profitability and keeping the client happy.
I also believe that this made me a better lawyer. I am able to present matters in a courtroom to a judge or jury and am equally comfortable speaking with a large corporate client or a bereft widow. I have knowledge in various areas of the law, including litigation, appeals, employment, civil rights, insurance, real estate, school law, wills and trusts, workers’ compensation, and medical malpractice that I had the benefit of learning while being mentored by more experienced lawyers, the ultimate benefit of a firm setting. I also have participated in more than 50 jury trials and hundreds of non-jury matters. When I decided to become a judge, this breadth of experience led the judicial selection committee to hold me in better stead. As a general jurisdiction trial court judge, you are asked to decide matters from many practice areas.
Do not assume that there is no place for a generalist in the large law firms of today or the large firms of tomorrow. Someone once called a general practice “the ultimate specialty.” One thing is for sure: There will always be a need for the lawyer who can do many things. It’s built-in job security.
Florencio (Larry) Ramirez is a former children’s court judge of the Third Judicial District Court in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a former Chair of the GP|Solo Division. He is of counsel with Carrillo Law, L.L.C., in Las Cruces and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.