Book Review: Small Firms, Big Opportunity: How to Get Hired (and Succeed) in the New Legal Economy

If what its authors say is true, that “….smaller firms are the largest and fastest growing section of the legal community,” then Small Firms, Big Opportunity: How to Get Hired (and Succeed) in the New Legal Economy (Linda Calvert Hanson, Samantha Williams, Decision Books, Seattle, 2012, 168 p.) should be a hot hit with lawyers and law students.

 

Calvert Hanson and Williams are law career services professionals who have used their years of experience in law practice, law school career services, law practice professionalism, and shared passion for small firm practice to create a useful tool for 21st century lawyers. Their work on NALP (The Association for Legal Career Professionals) committees is brightly reflected in this book.

Bridging the gap with dense text

Small Firms is proscriptive, mincing no words in laying out the requirements for taking charge of a career in a small firm.Its dense text provides examples and detailed explanations that will help law students and new lawyers bridge the gap between what they might have learned in law school, and what they should think about as they approach and begin to work in small firms. This is not a quick read for a plane flight; it is a serious, searchable resource addressing virtually all aspects of small firm life.

Technical and social infrastructure

Calvert Hanson and Williams address technical and social infrastructure questions which are not part of a law school curriculum, and present too vast a set of issues to be fully covered in even the most well-developed career services program schedule. Defining “small” as 50 or fewer lawyers, gives the their book a large canvass and a broad constituency.

Small firms puzzle law students

Questions to answer.

Law students are correctly puzzled by the small firm job market which lacks the transparency – or at least the public hiring schedule – of large law firms and public agencies.In Small Firms, Calvert Hanson and Williams use their own observations, and the reflections of law students and lawyers to answer these questions:

 

  1. Why consider small firm practice?

  2. Where are the small firm jobs?

  3. Why do I need to know about the business of practicing law?

  4. How do I go about networking effectively with small firms?

  5. What should I expect as a starting salary, and how do I go about negotiating?

  6. What are the core competencies, and why are they so critical to my job search?

  7. What steps do I need to take to succeed in my new position?

Full Disclosure

Calvert Hanson and Williams are committed to full disclosure about the pro’s and con’s of small firm practice. Chapter 3 begins with nine advantages of small firm practice over Biglaw work:
  • More hands-on responsibility sooner

  • Full case management and greater autonomy

  • More immediate client contact

  • Greater personal interaction with a larger subset of people

  • Ability to see first-hand how your work helps others

  • More collegial, family-like atmosphere

  • Greater flexibility and other quality of life distinctions

  • More integral involvement in firm decisions sooner

  • Potential to develop a new area of specialization as expertise evolves

The down side: no place to hide

They follow this with an acknowledgement that small firms are not for everyone, and include a list of possible disadvantages.
They note that small firms may be perceived as less prestigious, offer fewer high-end benefits, lower starting salaries, and that they probably lack formal training programs. For candidates, the job “fit” is extremely critical because there is no place to hide from people with whom you don’t get along. Finding and landing a position takes time and has no set timeline. Small firms are not usually located in prestige addresses with opulent surroundings, gyms, and weekly flower deliveries. Small firms rarely offer club membership, or the opportunity to attend CLE in the Bahamas.
With fewer support staff than at Biglaw, small firm lawyers may need to do their own administrative work. Finally, with “fit”so critical, lawyers who don’t get along with everyone on their teams may have no option but to leave.

Five chapters worth the price of the book

“There’s a First Time For Everything” (Chapter 15) and the five core competency chapters are worth the price of this book because they pull back the curtains on issues that are rarely mentioned and even more rarely explained. Without this information, law students and new lawyers increase their learning curves and increase their chances of torpedoing promising legal careers.

First Time for Everything: Chapter 15

Experienced lawyers have blotted out the memories of their first weeks at work, making many of them uniquely ill-suited to guide law clerks and new lawyers.They may be well-meaning, but if training begins and ends with stories that begin “Back in my day…” a new lawyer is lost.This chapter begins to fill the gap.
In six tightly-packed pages, Calvert Hanson and Williams take their readers through meeting new supervisors and colleagues (who may have spotted them on the internet), making a mistake (how it is handled can set the tone for an entire career), meeting new mentors  (in a small firm they are unlikely to have “M” tattooed on their foreheads, and they may be outside the firm), communicating with partners (likely from different generations), handling first assignments (get clarification of everything!), and handling hearings all by yourself (what do you need to know and where do you need to go?)

Core Competency: What is that?

A quick search for “lawyers’ core competencies” yields 372,000 results, making it a well-trod but not particularly accessible subject.  A survey of some of the results will likely leave a reader gasping for breath and asking “What does this mean to me?”

Core Competency and Biglaw

Core competency concepts have been the province of professional development (PD) professionals at large law firms and big agencies for more than a decade. Legal PD professionals have their own active association (Professional Development Consortium) and well-attended annual Lawyer Development Institute, co-sponsored by NALP and the American Law Institute. With the support of senior management, significant human and financial resources have been focused on identifying the skills and experiences that lawyers need to develop year-by year, and a great deal of time and money are devoted to creating, delivering, and evaluating training programs.
Unlike BigLaw, small firms rely on commercial or bar-sponsored CLE, expensive observation opportunities (every moment not billed is a dollar not earned), “throw them into the pool” assignments, and dumb luck. No plan. No standards. No guidelines.

A Core Competency Roadmap for smaller firms

Calvert Hanson and Williams have tackled this and created a roadmap. By setting out four categories (Business, Associate Skills, Personal and Professional Development, and Lawyering Skills) they open a graphic window onto what it takes to turn a law student into a lawyer.

An example of a critical competency: Business

Of the four business competencies, Business Acumen, Entrepreneurship, Quantitative Abilities, and Tech Savvy, Entrepreneurship is the most elusive. So often demanded and so rarely defined, they offer this particularly useful definition from Professor Jeff Cornwall, Director of Belmont University’s Center for Entrepreneurship:
…entrepreneurship is the process of identifying, evaluating, seizing an opportunity, and bringing together the resources necessary for success.

Blunt about Quantitative Abilities

Typical of the treatment of all of the subjects in this book is the authors’forthrightness about the basic quantitative skills that are required: understand basic accounting and statistics; use basic math and financial concepts for calculating fees and damages, present value for structured settlements, compound interest, interest rates, and profit margins; and (helpful) apply mathematical reasoning, statistical methods or cost-benefit analysis to analyze and resolve business and technical problems.
No excuses.

For inspiration and for reference

For students and lawyers exploring or already hired in small firms, this book is both inspiration and reference. It is packed with stories from lawyers in the trenches in the 21st century.

The Authors

Linda Calvert Hanson is the current Director of the Florida Bar’s Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism, and she chairs the Florida Bar’s General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section. She is a former Assistant Dean for Bar Success and Professionalism, and Assistant Dean for Career Development at the University of Florida College of Law. She has practiced in government and in small firms.
Samantha Williams is Director of Employer Relations at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, were she focuses on small firm outreach and employer development. She previously served as assistant director and associate director of career services at ASU, and she has worked an associate at large and small firms

About susangainen

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