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Career Steps

Strategies for Finding a Job with a Small Law Firm

While there are tried-and-true tactics that apply to most job-hunting endeavors, new graduates and junior lawyers looking for a job with a small firm need to understand how those firms differ from their larger counterparts. Here are some strategies to employ if you are looking for a small firm position.

Blanketing potential employers with unsolicited, nonspecific letters and resumes is never your best bet, but that’s especially true when it comes to small law firms. Small firms do not have a recruiting administrator or, in most cases, a human resources manager, so sending a letter to the aforementioned nonexistent person isn’t likely to garner a response. And generally, unless there is an immediate and pressing vacancy, a busy small firm lawyer isn’t likely to respond to an unsolicited “Dear Hiring Partner” letter, either. At best, your snail-mail probably ends up in the “to-do” later (much later) pile.

So how will you get the attention of a prospective small firm employer? As in any job search, it’s important that you try to think like your audience. To that end, it’s helpful to talk to lawyers who work in small firms to solicit strategy recommendations based on how they were hired. While this economy may call for different measures, precedent is always helpful. That’s a good first step. Here are other steps you should take.

Address the Firm’s Needs

Cash flow may not be a week-to-week issue at a large firm, but at small firms the fiscal equation is different—and the outlay of cash needed for a new associate can represent a significant commitment. It’s imperative that you understand the economics of a small firm if you are going to present yourself as an attractive candidate. You need to be seen as a profit center, not as a cost center. If you are able to convince a small firm that you will help increase revenue rather than be a drain on income, you are far more likely to be perceived as a viable hire. But as a new lawyer, how can you do that?

Put your entrepreneurial inclinations to work and demonstrate that you understand the business needs of small firms. You have to make a case to the partners about the ways in which you will be able to contribute to the bottom line. So be prepared to articulate how you can help generate revenue for the particular firm. If you have specific coursework in the areas in which the firm practices, highlight that. If you have any previous work experience in the firm’s practice arena, highlight that. If you have any background as an entrepreneur, running an organization, or selling or marketing products or services, emphasize that. Also, if you can bring knowledge to the firm that its lawyers don’t currently have—think of e-discovery or another cutting-edge practice subject that may be foreign to more senior attorneys—that might help position you as an immediate asset.

In addition, you want to highlight your good work habits and your understanding of efficiencies, billing and how law firms make money. If you don’t feel up to speed, read about the business aspects of running a firm until you can converse about this important topic. The ABA Law Practice Management Section has lots of online information and articles to help you. When candidates solicit work, one of the biggest mistakes they make is highlighting how the job will be important to them and their development. The search should always be focused on how you can help the employer, not yourself.

Target Your Particular Audience

So where will you find small firm lawyers who might potentially want to hire you—or who might at least teach you a thing or two about the doings of small firms? One logical place to look is the courthouse.

It’s stunning that so many new law school graduates neglect to make a trip to the local courthouse to watch trials and other lawyer activities in action. Spending some time visiting local courthouses can be invaluable in learning what it’s like for small firm lawyers to practice, and it could expand your employment prospects, too. If you want to practice bankruptcy, be sure to go to that court. If you want to be in domestic practice, find out which judges are on that docket and where their courtrooms are. If you announce yourself to the clerk as a newly minted lawyer, you might very well be introduced to the judge and the attorneys in the matter. Understandably, this is not for the meek; but you need to overcome myriad fears to become a practicing lawyer. Within a short amount of time you can be face-to-face with a number of small firm lawyers who practice in your fields of interest.

Another strategy involves visiting targeted law offices with your resume. While, again, this is not for the timid, it’s a far more entrepreneurial approach than just blindly mailing out letters. It also requires some advance planning to maximize its effectiveness. You want to contact each firm in advance to find out who in the firm is designated to receive applications so you can place the appropriate name on your resume package for each office. Dress in a suit, take your letter and resume directed to the designated hiring persons, knock on the firms’ doors, and ask if the designated hiring persons are available. Odds are good they won’t be, but you will still have an excellent opportunity to make a positive impression on the receptionists or office managers. Make your case to them that you are looking for work in the firm’s practice areas, and that you want to meet with Mr. or Ms. Partner to talk about how you can help the firm. A trusted receptionist can, in turn, make a case for you that you could never make for yourself in a snail-mail letter or an e-mail.

Before you leave make sure you have the name of the person with whom you interacted. It will help you when you make the follow-up call. This process requires attention to detail, a commitment to following up, and the courage to have face-to-face contact—but it also shows you have initiative and the courage of your convictions.

Where else can you get ideas on how to target your search? Go where the lawyers go. For example, is there a local watering hole that litigators from small firms frequent after work? Take a friend or other job searcher and stop by at the end of the day. Nurse a club soda or a beer and make contacts. Attend your local bar association functions, and join the sections for the practice areas you wish to pursue. Ask questions, and seek advice.

Consider Alternatives to Full-Time Employment

Perhaps you have a good small firm prospect for an employer, but committing to a full-time hire is more than the firm is able to do at this time. You could discuss a variety of options, including working as a contract attorney or on a part-time basis. Candidates rarely put these kinds of flexible options on the table, but they could be very attractive to a firm gun-shy of making a full-time commitment.

Consider a particular time frame for the arrangement so both parties can evaluate the possibilities. If you do work on a contract basis, remember to figure in the taxes you will have to pay and the markup for your hourly rate that the firm will charge. But also remember that this is an opportunity not just for the firm to assess your abilities through actual work assignments—it’s your opportunity to see what it’s really like to work there and to test out any hypothesis you might have about which practice areas you want to pursue.

Reach Out to Your Personal Contacts

As with any job search, personal contacts are critical to the process. And since small firm lawyers rely on word of mouth and referrals for much of their business, when it comes to hiring it’s likely to be their mode of operation, too. So to expand your employment prospects, your best strategy is to develop, foster and utilize your network of lawyer-contacts to make more connections. That includes classmates and other alumni from your law school, your law school career services office, your local and national bar associations, and pro bono groups. The more people who know you are looking, and what you are looking for, the greater the chance you can generate a referral that will lead to the job you want.

About the Author

Wendy L. Werner is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She is a member of the ABA LPM Section’s Law Practice Today Webzine Board.

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