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Job Hunting in a Down Economy: Target the Small-Firm Market

Samantha Williams

Job Hunting in a Down Economy: Target the Small-Firm Market
Thomas Barwick via GettyImages

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The economic downturn drastically reduced the need for legal services in many areas, translating into fewer jobs for attorneys of all experience levels. Recent law graduates have felt a greater pinch because there are far fewer opportunities to begin gaining experience as an attorney.

Target Small and Mid-Sized Firms

Small and mid-sized firms have historically been an ideal entry-level market for new grads, but it is important for those targeting this market to realize that it requires different search strategies and competencies, and in many markets, there isn’t as much work to support a new hire. Even those firms that are seeing the benefits of an uptick in business are concerned that the work will not be consistent enough to support a full-time employee’s salary plus benefits. Small and mid-sized firms especially are very sensitive to the fact that they can be very busy one month but not the next, a model that makes it very difficult to support a new full-time employee. One small firm attorney in Scottsdale, Arizona, says she must be “consistently busy” for two quarters in a row before even considering hiring a law clerk or new associate—certainly a tall order in these shaky economic times.

Small firms are also apprehensive about hiring prematurely because laying off an associate or a partner often has significant consequences beyond just bad publicity. Chances are this lawyer has become part of the firm’s family, making the separation especially difficult (and there is usually no recruiting coordinator to do the dirty work). In other words, when one attorney gets cut from a firm of 200, it is not felt nearly as acutely as when it occurs in a firm of five. Moreover, unemployment insurance payments can eat into already razor-thin margins.

Get Your Foot in the Door with Contract Work

New grads who are targeting the small to midsized firm market should understand that the most promising opportunities often do not rise to the level of a 40-hour-per-week job. One of the best ways to get a foot in the proverbial door is to do contract work. As simple as this idea might seem, there is no better way to communicate your potential value to a firm than by demonstrating what you can do. For example, draft a brief or motion, prepare skeleton outlines for appellate work, or assist with trial prep. Do not think of it as temp work; instead, consider it a tryout. Doing a fantastic job on one project makes it much more likely that you will be given another project and then another. This type of meaningful contact is how many new attorneys are being hired these days.

This is an abridged and edited version of an article entitled “Newbie Blues,” which originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of GPSolo magazine, volume 30, number 1, published by the American Bar Association Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. 

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