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06 February 2014

Large vs Small Law Firms - Whats Right For Your Legal Career

Published on 06 February 2014

Though big firms offer solid career pathways, today's lawyers need to look beyond the age-old attitude of 'big or bust'. 

Big firm lawyers have many things in common. Several have managed career trajectories within one firm, giving them tenure, and they share a thirst for high-end casework.

Brooke Massender, pro bono counsel at Herbert Smith Freehills, and Jack Brumpton, a lawyer in the energy and resources group of Minter Ellison’s Brisbane office, say high-level casework makes big firms appealing.

“The thing that attracted me to Freehills was just knowing that I would get the best training,” says Massender. “Whatever happened after that, I had the best foundations possible for whatever it was I might want to move into.”

Brumpton acknowledges the benefit of being surrounded by “really sharp minds” and seeing how they operate.

“The big-firm environment appealed because of the learning and training opportunities, and the quality of work,” he says.

 Both sides of the scale

Massender says diversity of practice areas and clients in a big firm is attractive, but she acknowledges the challenges of scale and consequent hierarchies. It can take longer to develop personal autonomy around casework and client base.

“Having said that, once you get to that point, you’ve laid the best possible foundations by working on some of the most prestigious cases with the most prestigious clients.”

Brumpton agrees that hierarchy can be a problem, as you may risk having restricted access to partners.

“You might rarely have contact with partners four or five levels above you, whereas in a smaller boutique kind of environment there might be more opportunities for direct contact with a senior lawyer.”

For both lawyers, diversity of work means professional growth. Moreover, scale means lawyers can make career changes within the firm.

“You don’t necessarily know when you come out of uni what you’re going to be most interested in,” Massender says. “Practising law is obviously different to studying it. So the more different experiences and choices there are, the more likely you are to find something that is your niche.”

Small and flexible

That flexibility is something Mal Fielding, a partner in the property, construction and environment practice at medium-sized firm Addisons Lawyers, would commend. One of the founders of Westgarth Middletons in the early ’90s (later to become Corrs Chambers Westgarth), Fielding has experience in both large and small firms. For him, having autonomy in work is important and he enjoys working in a “management-light” environment.

“A firm like this gives me some freedom to do what I need to do with my clients, which is great. I think a lot of larger firms need quite a bit of structure and management and process, if you like, to operate, because they are so big.”

Young lawyers are also advised to not be afraid to start small. Simon Mouatt, chief executive of multi-location suburban law firm Dib Lawyers, advocates a lateral approach to entering law.

“Many small to mid-size suburban and rural legal firms are screaming out for quality, hard-working staff,” he says. “Lawyers in smaller firms can experience much more variety of work, have more opportunities to practise the law in a hands-on manner than those working in large firms, better preparing them for future roles as a partner.”

Fielding recognises the value of experience, and acknowledges that even in a very tough environment, all types of firms have something to offer.

“There’s no doubt that if you’re fortunate enough to have an opportunity to join a good law firm with a training program, it’s going to be really beneficial, because it’s not just the partners, it’s all those other lawyers [whose] experiences you can draw upon.”

Whether you choose to follow the path into large law or enjoy the opportunities offered by a smaller practice, there are many options open to explore.

Catherine Kenny is Executive Officer at The College of Law Queensland and has over 20 years’ experience dealing with firms of all sizes and with law students all over Queensland.

"Over the last few years students have realised that opportunities lie across the spectrum and they need to think more broadly.The positions are just not available in the biggest firms for all the law graduates we are producing in Queensland. Students are therefore becoming more strategic with their careers and looking for legal experience of any kind whilst still undergraduates.

Practical Legal Training has also given graduates a comprehensive grounding for entry-level legal practice.  Instead of feeling like they’ve been cast adrift when they start in a law firm, the graduates can “fill in the gaps”  with their practical training and the firms can concentrate on providing experience . That safety net has alleviated some of the anxiety for graduates entering smaller practices which may have fewer resources. “