Exploring the World of Small Firms That Represent Individuals

Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life, as a dog does his master's carriage. Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw on it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. -Thoreau

Continuing our series of articles about career planning, we return to our hypothetical attorney, Ruth. In another article, she decided she would leave her firm. She completed the Career Options Exercise and checked off the following settings and areas of interest:

  • Small law firms - 1 to 5 (including solo practitioners associated with other lawyers)
  • Family law and abuse
  • Criminal defense
  • Plaintiff litigation - toxic tort - employee discrimination
  • Immigration
  • Public interest/human services
  • Public law firm - 4 to 10 lawyers
    • Class action civil rights litigation
    • Environmental protection litigation
    • Criminal defense
  • Non-profit organizations or associations (typical 501(c)(3) with few or no lawyers and little litigation)
    • Executive director - civil rights policy and lobbying
    • Research director - women's rights organization
    • Newsletter publisher - education reform group
    • Legal counsel - children's rights advocacy group
    • Counselor, adviser, coach, social worker in an employment related organization
  • Academia
    • Dean of students for a law school
    • Director of clinical education program at a law school
    • Executive assistant to the president of a college
    • Private school teacher

She saw that there were two patterns - one the law firm public interest path and the other the non-law firm, non-litigating, non-profit path. She knew she wanted to work for the underrepresented members of society but was uncertain whether she wanted to advocate for them in the courtroom or by using other approaches.

On the whole, she still felt like remaining in trial practice, but so much of her energy had gone into conflicts, internal and external, that she began to have some doubts. Moreover, she was increasingly aware that litigation had its limits as a tool for social change. Still, the memory of her father's accomplishments as a litigator, and the evidence of her own undeniable skills, kept her focused on trial practice. "After all," she thought, "it would be a shame to abandon a calling just because I am exercising in the wrong environment. Let's take the more conservative strategy for starters, and see what my classmates' experience has been in other settings."

She wasn't sure but she decided to explore these options and evaluate them based on what she had discovered about herself in her self-assessment. She also was interested in finding out whether every one of her checks represented a realistic option for a lawyer - a setting in which many lawyers can be found.

She quickly determined that the traditional world of law firms referred to as "public interest" while she was in law school was extremely limited consisting of three public law firms (the local ACLU affiliate, one that represented children and an environmental center) and the local affiliates of the national Legal Services programs. In talking to a friend at the children's organization she found out that all of them advertise their openings and are usually inundated with as many as four hundred resumes.

She started to investigate the world of small law firms. She recalled the statistic that said that 70% of all lawyers are in private practice, about two-thirds of this 70% are in firms of five or less lawyers, and half of this 70% are sole practitioners. She needed to overcome her uneasiness about even considering such small firms. While in law school, she had gotten the impression that small firms were composed of lawyers who "couldn't make it in big firms", "they don't hire" and "I do not have the skills they need". She was struck, however, by the comments of Catherine Steane, a graduate of Yale Law School which she read in Lawful Pursuit.

"I found a position in a private law firm with one principal and two other associates representing tenants threatened with eviction and bringing wrongful eviction lawsuits for tenants evicted without just cause. I handled my cases largely by myself, making most of the tactical decisions, yet consulting with my boss on almost every case. I loved my job. I never worked weekends. I had a pleasant work environment and a great deal of autonomy and responsibility without feeling that I had been cast to sea without a life preserver. My work was an extension of my political beliefs and I got a great deal of satisfaction from the feeling that I provided needed, high quality services to people in crisis... What I learned as a part of the "plaintiffs' bar" is that there are lots of jobs out there not in the traditional public interest agency mold where one can do good works for everyday people and still make a reasonable living."

Because of this and since these firms represented such a large segment of the law firm market, she ignored her concerns and pressed on. She decided to find out what the realistic area of practices were for those representing individuals and noted that some of the links under "Small law firms" in Article 5 led her to the FindLaw's Legal Subject Index. She was attracted to:

Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Education Law, Environmental Law, Family Law, Government Benefits, Health Law, Immigration Law, Indian Law and Litigation

Her next step was to go to the West Legal Directory or Martindale-Hubbell® to search for lawyers where she found hundreds of lawyers in her geographic area practicing:

Family Law; Criminal law; Plaintiff Litigation - Environmental Toxic Tort; Employee Rights including Discrimination; and Immigration.

She called the law school career office and the professor who teaches family law and asked for references to local lawyers who they believed would be willing to be "mentors." She also used the "advanced search" feature in the Westlaw site and looked for alums from her law school practicing in those areas. She scheduled three informational sessions a week (one for lunch and two over the telephone in the evening). By the end of a month she had an impression of the similarities of practice in these five fields as well as the range of differences based on physical space, personalities, temperament, and income.

She remembered the National Lawyers Guild and called the president of the local chapter who suggested she join and participate in the activities of one or more of the committees that appealed to her; i.e., spousal abuse, racism, employment discrimination and immigration. At a meeting of the spousal abuse committee she was introduced to a graduate of her law school who had left a partnership at a large law firm where her practice was limited to commercial litigation and had formed a firm with two other women. Building on her pro bono involvement with shelters and battered women's programs, she was limiting her practice to domestic relations. One of her partners, whose expertise was in employment law, was taking plaintiff workplace discrimination cases and the third, formerly an insurance defense litigator, was representing plaintiffs in toxic tort and other environmental injury suits.

She did not need to go through the Take Control Exercise again. She knew what was important. She needed to have some autonomy - control over her life, an environment where she could be comfortable being herself, a place where she would feel intellectually challenged, and most important, have significant responsibility and the feeling she was doing something that had some meaning to her.

She was convinced by her exploration that there were law firms where her criteria could be satisfied. There was still a nagging doubt, however, about whether she wanted to be a litigator.