Law firm practice can be extremely variable by size and specialty. Some students end up in large, national/international commercial law firms – these are the firms you typically see on campus during the OCI process. However you might consider a smaller firm, boutique or even a solo practice. Whether you are interested in a big firm or a smaller to mid-size firm, you should make an appointment with an OCS advisor so we can help structure a job search strategy unique to you.
Working at Big Law Firms
Big firms offer a variety of specialties in a framework of general commercial law. You have the option of a practice that might include employment law, general corporate law, litigation, employee benefits, tax or real estate, just to name a few. You are typically hired into one practice area upon graduation. Big firms have “big” clients and “big” cases and deals. Often the work is cutting edge for high-profile business or individuals. Associates may be considered for some type of partnership after 8-10 years of practice. You will work hard; typically the hours are long and unpredictable.
- High compensation. Bonuses are common
- Formalized training programs
- Ability to specialize in complex legal issues
- Good resources
- Ability to do pro bono work
- Possibility of moving to a different office within the firm
- Long hours
- Pressure to develop business
- Prospects of partnership not so great
- Big firms typically hire 2Ls for summer associate positions in the late summer of the 2L year and many go through the OCI process. At the end of the summer, firms will typically give offers to join the firm post graduation. Some firms may have a few summer positions open for 1Ls students, but they are very difficult to obtain. Big firms may also hire 3Ls if they still have a need for an entry level position – most of this is also done in the early fall but may continue into the spring.
- Yes! Many exciting and interesting opportunities exist for students interested in private practice on an international basis. Though most SLS students choose to launch their legal careers in the United States, a few start their practice abroad, typically in a foreign office of a large U.S. firm where the firm has a significant U.S. practice. International attorneys work for firms with foreign clients. When practicing in a larger firm, attorneys often practice domestic law for foreign clients. These firms tend to be located in metropolitan cities or cities where federal regulatory agencies are located. International firms tend to follow a hiring timeline similar to that of our OCI program -- mostly doing their hiring in the late summer/early fall.
Working at Small Firms and Solo Practice
At many small firms you can have a general practice; others specialize in certain areas, like trusts and estates, criminal law, immigration law or labor and employment law, just to name a few. Clients are typically individuals and small businesses. A smaller firm that has a complex specialty practice area for which it is well-know is called a “boutique” firm – some of these firms actually might pay as much as a big firm. A solo practice is always an option but is very tough for a new lawyer.
- More intimate working relationships
- More opportunities to develop client relationships
- Early responsibility
- More control over hours
- Typically less pay
- Typically no formalized training programs
- Lack of resources
- Generalists often feel that they are "spread too thin"
- Focus on client development tough for young lawyers
- Typically in the spring for both 2Ls and 3Ls, although small firms can hire at any time as need arises. Some may hire 1ls for the summer. Many small firms may not give offers of permanent employment after a summer position.
- 50 Web Resources for the Suddenly Solo Lawyer
- ABA – General Practice, Small Firm and Solo Division: Start and Run a Law Firm
- Law Firm Life: A Guide to Working in a Law Firm
- San Francisco Bar Association – Solo and Small Firm Resource Center
- State Bar of California Solo/Small Firm Resources
- Solo Practice University
- The California Guide to Growing and Managing a Law Office (print)
- The California Guide to Opening and Managing a Law Office (print)
- Working in Large Law Firm vs. Smaller Law Firms
Working as In-House Counsel
Some SLS students have aspirations of working as in-house counsel for a company. As a general rule, most companies do not hire students right out of law school; rather they look for those attorneys that have been trained at a mid to large-sized law firm for at least a few years. Some companies, however, may hire 1L and 2L students as summer interns. If you are interested in eventually taking the in-house counsel path, please make an appointment to meet with one of the OCS career advisors to come up with a long-term career strategy.
- The areas of law handled by in-house counsel typically depend on the size of the company. Most legal departments focus on transactional work or intellectual property (for high-tech companies). Some larger companies also have attorneys that might specialize in labor and employment, real estate, tax, licensing, regulatory and administrative law, to name a few. There are a variety of positions, ranging from General Counsel, to Associate Counsel to Staff Attorney.
- No billable hours
- More predictable hours
- Ability to work with business side of company
- Potentially lucrative compensation if given equity on the company
- No need to focus on business development
- Typically less pay than big law firms
- Hours can still be long
- Typically don't hire right out of law school
- May not have formal training programs
- Possible need for technical background for some positions
- Practices vary, but some big corporate law departments may hire on same timeline as big firms (in early fall). Entry-level positions are limited; most jobs require 2-3 years law firm experience.