Going small doesn’t mean fewer opportunities
When I started law school, I knew that I wanted to be a litigator. I did not, however, know anything about how or where I would end up practicing.
When on-campus interviewing time came around, I looked at the list of firms visiting our campus and signed up to interview with every Washington, D.C., firm with a litigation practice. I assumed that the interviewing firm list represented my world of choices. During my interviews, I thought about each firm’s presentation — some firms emphasized lifestyle while others emphasized different litigation specialties or even a specific firm culture.
I had a wonderful summer at a large litigation-focused Washington, D.C., law firm. I drafted memo after memo, enjoyed hobnobbing with brilliant colleagues and overindulged in the D.C. dining scene.
When I secured a post-graduation clerkship in Minnesota, it occurred to me that my husband and I might stay in the Twin Cities. I thought I should start making some contacts, and I looked around for another large law firm.
Because Minnesota law firms did not frequent my Nashville, Tenn., law school, I actually Googled “best litigation firms Minneapolis.” And so, the summer before starting my clerkship, I worked at another large law firm, this time in the Twin Cities. Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and I congratulated myself on trying two large law firms so that I could really compare two different positions.
When I started my clerkship, however, my eyes opened to a world beyond large law firms. Sure, we saw the Sidley Austin and Latham & Watkins folks come and argue before the court. And they were great. But I also saw phenomenal attorneys who had solo shops or worked at small local firms — these gigs had not been on my radar. I also noticed that I saw younger folks from smaller firms arguing motions and even handling witnesses at trial. For the first time, I began to wonder whether any of these smaller firms were looking for new attorneys.
One of the lessons I learned in law school was “go to the best law firm you can.” Top law firms were generally defined as the most well-known firms in the biggest cities. The idea was that these firms would provide opportunities later in your career — their names were a calling card that could be traded in once you figured out what you really wanted to do.
The problem was that I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to practice law, and I wanted a home where I could learn and build that practice. I worked for several years before attending law school and had the feeling (don’t laugh) that I was getting old and did not have time to work at a large firm for five years before settling down somewhere else to build a practice.
Of course, I might make partner at a big law firm, but I knew that the odds were stacked against me. When I asked a former law school professor for advice, however, he laughed. “You’d be an idiot to turn down big D.C. firm,” he said.
Around this time, a friend and former co-clerk joined a boutique litigation firm in Minneapolis. Whenever I would run into him in the skyway he would wax on about his work and the substantive experiences he was undertaking. I began begging him to get me in the door for an interview. I am so grateful it worked.
Now I am a generally happy person, and I enjoy practicing the law. I firmly believe that had I ended up at either of the firms I summered with, I would have had wonderful opportunities and experiences and would not have been able to imagine my life any other way.
I also think, however, that law students deserve to know their full panoply of options. Sure, if I had done my homework, I could have uncovered a diverse range of employment options. But law school, with its emphasis on big law, actually discouraged me from looking. And, when I found a smaller firm, law school discouraged me from pursuing that option. If any good has come out of the economic crash of 2008, perhaps it has encouraged law students to explore more diverse legal career options.
A big firm has tons to offer an eager young associate, but other types of practices do as well. It just took me five years to figure it out.
Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at email@example.com.