Living Large at a Smaller Size
Top-tier law grads and big-firm hot shots take their smarts to smaller practices
Posted Jan 4, 2007 6:56 PM CST
By Margaret Graham Tebo
When Clair Harrington finished a three-year stint as a clerk for the Virginia Supreme Court, she had a plum job waiting for her at a big New York City law firm.
But Harrington—who graduated high in her class at St. John’s University School of Law—told the firm, Cahill Gordon & Reindel, that she wasn’t interested. Instead, she joined Meyer, Goergen & Marrs, a firm of fewer than 10 lawyers in Richmond, Va.
Harrington had spent a law school summer working for the 250-lawyer New York firm. She knew what to expect and decided she wanted something else.
Though the salary was smaller, she says, the quality of life of a small firm in a small city made the choice easy.
“A really common complaint I heard from associates that summer was that they had three or four years’ experience, and they still weren’t even allowed to take their own depositions, much less appear in court,” says Harrington.
Harrington is among the many top-ranked grads or big-firm dynamos who take their smarts and skills and migrate to smaller practices. In exchange for big bucks, they find autonomy and a more comfortable lifestyle.
At the Richmond firm, Harrington started out in litigation, and she was handling her own trials within three months. Eventually, she moved to the transactional side and found her niche in small-business lending. She was asked to become a partner after four years.
Harrington also likes having greater autonomy to handle her caseload. “I don’t have to report to multiple tiers of managers, each with their own agenda. I like not being micromanaged,” she says.
Amy Kleinpeter knows what Harrington means about the realities of big-firm management. Kleinpeter, who graduated from the University of Southern California Law School in the top 15 percent of her class, spent her first year as a lawyer at the Los Angeles office of Squire Sanders & Dempsey, which has about 800 lawyers in offices around the world.
“I was bored out of my mind. I made great money, but I spent too much of it on Amazon. There are only so many hours a day I can do document review,” says Kleinpeter.
She also noticed that some of the partners she most admired at the big firm didn’t have much control over their practices, even after 10, 20 or 30 years at the firm.
“The people making decisions up through the layers of committees and managing partners often don’t even know the people they oversee—even those who have been at the firm for decades. It’s just too big,” she says.
So Kleinpeter interviewed with a much smaller firm, Doumanian & Associates in Glendale, Calif., with only a handful of associates.
WORTH THE TRADE-OFF
Though she took a pay cut of almost two-thirds of her former salary, Kleinpeter was thrilled to have the chance to get into court and to deal with clients.
Kleinpeter stayed with the smaller firm for three years before deciding to go to an even smaller firm. In July, she opened a solo practice in Pasadena.
“Sometimes it’s scary, but I like it so much better than when I was at the big firm feeling like I never got to do anything worthwhile,” she says.
Harrington says she has noticed that certain personalities seem drawn to smaller firms: entrepreneurial types and those who prefer control of their work environment over a large salary. “It’s about the relationship between effort and benefit. In a smaller firm, that relationship is much more obvious. It’s just that simple.”