Most law students on track to enter firm life after law school have some preconceptions about the type of firm for which they want to work. Some want a small firm, some want a large firm, others want the opportunity to make a lot of money, and many are looking for that “prestigious” firm for which to work. Often these notions are born out of the same place that got the student interested in suffering through law school in the first place. Regardless of the type of firm you want to work for after you graduate, it’s never too early to start thinking about where to get your career started. With the all-too-common drive to work in the most prestigious firm in town, it’s important to consider whether that objective is as desirable as it seems.
Little Fish – Big Pond
The great thing about being a little fish in the big pond is that you can ride the prestige of the firm for which you work to elevate your status down the road. While it is certainly possible that a large, prestigious firm could provide significant growth potential, the reality is that it will take years of grunt work to even begin that assent. On the other hand, people within the legal profession (like all other professions) are increasingly moving around after relatively brief stints with each firm. Gone are the days (for the most part) of working day in and day out at one firm for sixty years.
The reality is, the best opportunities for growth, development, and to shine might not be readily available in the very large, prestigious firm. In addition, competition in a very prestigious firm can be a bit cut-throat, and every associate’s trajectory within the firm is going to be determined relatively soon after they begin working for the firm. Does the professional equivalent of The Hunger Games sound like fun? If not, perhaps there is another option you could consider.
Big Fish – Little Pond
Maybe you have discovered you have an aptitude for lawyering skills, and you want to flex your muscles at a smaller firm. There are advantages to this approach. Of course, there is always the chance that a small firm could struggle to survive in the exceedingly difficult legal field. But, in a small firm, a talented young attorney has a good possibility of having the broadest range of opportunities to shine, and the best possible odds for rapid promotion. When the firm has a lot of work, small firms tend to approach that workload with the attitude that “many hands make light work.” This is great for the new attorney, because you will have the chance to do a little bit of everything.
Being the big fish in the little pond can have drawbacks. Specifically, stagnation can occur because the number of opportunities to grow and stretch might eventually run out. After all, the smaller firm will have limited resources. Additionally, the smaller firm will not provide the same currency in terms of your reputation when you decide it’s time to move on. Like Goldilocks, the trick might be to find the metaphorical legal porridge that is just right.
Growing Fish – Growing Pond: The Legal Career Sweet Spot
Rather than chasing the most prestigious firm (the big pond) or the small firm that maximizes your chance to shine (the little pond), there is a third option: the growing pond. Joining a mid-sized, less prestigious firm could provide great opportunity for you to grow. The mid-sized firm might have the resources and opportunities that allow you to grow as an attorney, and because it is not the most prestigious, there will be less competition. The growing pond provides great opportunity for the growing fish. Ultimately, in this less-competitive, resource-rich environment, you have the potential to become the big fish at the perfect rate.
Opportunity for growth and development won’t always be available at the most prestigious or influential firms. The most desirable place to begin your legal career might be the place in which you can more effectively accumulate lawyering skills, amass social capital, and be influential with those around you and those with whom you come into contact. If working at a highly prestigious firm is critical to your happiness and roadmap, go for it. There are certainly benefits to that strategy. If, on the other hand, your goal is to make yourself indispensable and highly sought after by those same prestigious firms, it might be a better strategy to start in that expanding pond that will allow you to grow and become the attorney they actually want without suffering the painful years of the junior associate toiling away on mountains of discovery with little recognition or appreciation.
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