Interestingly, within the group of recent graduates in private practice, the percentage of those beginning their careers with small firms has increased significantly. The Class of 2009 saw 43 percent of graduates in private practice start at firms of between two and 25 lawyers; that number rose to 54.7 percent for the Class of 2011. Similarly, the number of graduates in private practice beginning their careers as solos has also risen: In 2009, 5.5 percent began as solos; that number rose to 6.1 percent for the Class of 2011.
New graduates will likely continue to flock to solo practice and small firms for at least the next few years. This is in large part owing to the fact that many large law firms are reducing their summer associate classes and many state and local government agencies still do not have enough funds to hire. Small firms are also becoming more and more attractive as an employment option to a generation that values autonomy, work-life balance, and opportunities to make immediate contributions in the workplace.
In this limited job market, newer attorneys are finding it increasingly difficult to find opportunities that provide fertile training ground for basic lawyering skills such as motion practice, managing litigation, and taking a proper deposition. A member of our Division, Kathleen Balthrop Havener, addressed this very issue in the September/October 2012 edition of GPSolo magazine, pointing out that the great influx of sole practitioners is owing to graduates simply giving up on their job search. The full text of her article, “Lifeguarding Lawyers: New Solos Need More Than a Mentor,” can be found online at tinyurl.com/bph8ocs. Another resource that addresses this topic is a book entitled Small Firms, Big Opportunity: How to Get Hired (and Succeed) in the New Legal Economy (LawyerAvenue Press, 2012). It is one of the only books currently on the market that pinpoints how small firms are different from any other legal employer, and why that is relevant both in practice and in one’s own job search.
What does it mean for you as more new law graduates seek job opportunities with sole practitioners and small law firms? Chances are you are seeing more unsolicited résumés cross your desk, and perhaps you have even received offers from law students or new graduates to work for free. As more new lawyers begin their practices as solos or small firm attorneys, you may have even worked a case involving a new (and very inexperienced) attorney. Regardless of how you yourself have been affected by the current employment market, this is an excellent opportunity for Division members to help our profession maintain the high level of integrity and competence expected of the legal profession.
So what can you do to help? Here are some suggestions:
- Act as co-counsel. In the GPSolo article cited above, Kathleen Balthrop Havener did an excellent job of describing how working as co-counsel with a new lawyer benefits everyone involved. It’s an easy way to help recent graduates and simultaneously build your book of business.
- Hire law students or new graduates, at least for project work. Many of us have overflow work that can be easily done on an hourly basis, such as research and writing, assistance with trial prep, answering discovery, and the like. Reach out to your local law school career services office and ask about posting a job for a discrete project. This is a great opportunity to add value to your practice and provide a meaningful learning experience for a law student.
- Act as a mentor. These relationships are incredibly valuable and can vary in terms of their level of commitment. If all of us provide one or two hours per month to a mentee, the return on our time investment would come back in spades. And don’t limit your mentoring to legal advice. Take your mentee or mentees to a networking event, and pass along other knowledge you’ve gained about the business of running a law practice.
- Offer services as a speaker/panelist at a law school. Student organizations, career services offices, and even faculty often seek out local practitioners as speakers for panels, networking events, and workshops. Share your best practices on career and professional development.
- Provide shadow opportunities. First-year students are especially grateful for opportunities to shadow attorneys to hearings, trials, depositions, and any other experience that provides them with an opportunity to see what practicing law is really like.
In closing, I am reminded of an African proverb, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” As we begin a new year and continue to face a challenging economy, let us recommit ourselves to bettering the profession, let us choose to go far, and let us choose to go together.