Private practice involves legal work in a for-profit setting or on behalf of for-profit organizations or causes. In addition to practicing at the law firm types described below, private sector lawyers may practice in corporations, accounting firms or trade associations.
Large Law Firms
What constitutes a large law firm may vary somewhat geographically – but if a firm has more than one office location, or over 100 attorneys, it is a fair assumption they could be considered a large law firm no matter where they are located. Large law firms tend to serve corporations, as opposed to individuals, and have a range of associated practice areas – such as mergers and acquisitions, transactional, patent, securities regulation, and of course corporate law. Large law firms tend to pay more than small or medium firms, but also require longer hours.
Most medium and large law firms have “summer associate” programs. These programs are designed to give students legal experience while providing firms an opportunity to evaluate students’ work before offering permanent employment following law school graduation. Large firms generally hire their entry-level associates from their summer associate pool. Therefore, it is important to think carefully about your position after your 2L or 3E summer. Some firms will recruit students in the fall of their final year, but these opportunities are scarce.
- NALP Directory of Legal Employer
- Chambers Associate
- Chambers and Partners
- Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory
- Legal 500
- New York Law Journal
- Benchmark Litigation – United States Firm Rankings
- IFLR 1000 (Guide to the World’s Leading Financial Law Firms)
Small and Medium Law Firms
What constitutes a small or medium firm? The terms “small” and “medium/mid-size” are relative, depending on the market or region within the U.S. For example, the size of a small or medium firm in New York City or Washington, D.C. is different than that in Denver or Cleveland. Regardless of how they are categorized, smaller firms provide employment to a significant percentage of the private sector: the ABA reported in 2012 that approximately 70% of attorneys in the private sector practice in firms with 20 or fewer attorneys.
Practice. A small firm can have a diversified practice, in that its attorneys practice in various areas of the law. Such a firm is known as a general practice firm. A small firm can also specialize in particular areas of law, such as patent, tax, or civil rights, and is referred to as a boutique firm because of its specialty practice area. Either type of firm can have sophisticated, complex practices with a diverse client base ranging from Fortune 500 companies to middle market firms to “Mom and Pop” businesses to individuals. There is a tremendous opportunity to define your practice and take responsibility early in this sector; accordingly, small firms target attorneys who can demonstrate a commitment to a particular type of practice and who have hands-on experience that will allow them to make a contribution immediately.
Recruiting and Timing. One feature that many small firms have in common is that they do not follow predictable hiring cycles for entry-level attorneys. Because these firms tend to hire only to fill a position when an employee leaves or when business demands, it is difficult to define a recruiting “season” for this sector. Many firms say that they prefer attorneys who have experience, as the firms may not have the time or resources to train junior lawyers. These hiring practices extend to summer employment: classes tend to be smaller, if they exist at all; and it is far less common for small and mid-size firms to make permanent offers to summer associates.
Outreach. Employers in this sector typically rely on word of mouth and personal referrals in hiring interns (“clerks”), summer associates, and permanent attorneys – networking therefore is a key component of the job search process. You will want to review the resources on our Networking and Relationship-Building page, including the Guide to Informational Interviewing, and develop a LinkedIn presence early in your law school career.
The resources below contain valuable information on seeking out, evaluating, and connecting to firms outside the “Biglaw” world.
- OCS Small and Mid-Size Firms List (firms listed by geographic region)
- Martindale-Hubbell Directory
- OCS Public Interest and Plaintiff’s Firm List
- Private Public Interest and Plaintiff’s Firm Guide (Harvard Law)
- Georgetown Long Distance Job Search Handouts
- PSJD (in “Search Jobs & Employers” tab conduct advanced search for law firms)
- US News (sortable by location and practice area)
- SuperLawyers (sortable by location, practice area, and school)
- Midsize Hot List (National Law Journal, updated annually)
- Litigation Boutiques Hot List (National Law Journal, updated annually)
- Plaintiffs’ Hot List (National Law Journal, updated annually)
- Intellectual Property Hot List (National Law Journal, updated annually)
- Benchmark Litigation (note particularly boutique firms and analysis of plaintiff firms)
- Chamber and Partners (see “Other Notable Practitioners” in certain practice areas)
- Vault 150 Under 150 (Vault’s list of leading midsize law firms)
Applying and Beyond
- Applying to Small and Medium Firms
- Guide to Networking at a Reception
- Guide to Negotiating Salary
- Robert Half Legal – 2017 Salary Guide
- From Biglaw to Boutiques: Small Firm Interviews (Above the Law, March 21, 2013)
- ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division
- Glassdoor (also a useful resource for in-house counsel positions and alternative careers)