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For most big firm associates, the odds of being elected partner at The Firm are about the same as winning the lottery and being struck by lightning — on the same day. Come to think of it, being elected partner is itself a lot like winning the lottery and being struck by lightning on the same day — but that’s a topic for another column. The point I want to make here is that, at large law firms, associates face long odds of ever being made partner. The question is, what happens to all those attorneys at all those big law firms who are deemed unworthy of partnership? The answer is that they do many other things. They start their own firms, take in-house positions, make an honest living outside the law or write and sell legal poetry (such as this column). Of all the exit paths for big firm associates, perhaps the most often traveled leads to the small law firm. For associates, the advantages of working at a small firm are many. You actually get to meet clients, you sometimes get to take the entire weekend off, and you’re less likely to be mistaken for the Xerox repair person just visiting the office to fix the copying machine. Best of all, by definition, smaller firms have fewer lawyers. Despite these advantages, the adjustment for the big firm lawyer making the move to more intimate surroundings can often be a difficult one. Things are done differently at small firms and many habits developed at the big firm have to be broken. As is my habit, The Rodent offers unsolicited advice to lawyers in this situation. 1. Anonymity Lost. One of the things lawyers at big firms complain about the most is that it is so easy to get lost in the shuffle. Many young lawyers remark that they feel like they are just a number. After moving to a small firm, however, lawyers quickly come to realize that being just a face in the crowd of lawyers has its advantages and that being a mere number is often better than being a person. At the big firm, for instance, your absences from the office can no longer be assumed to result from working with another partner or being in the library — especially when your firm has no other partners — and no library. While the lawyer at the big firm can enjoy being away for days without anyone noticing, the small firm lawyer worries if she takes more than an hour for lunch or spends too much time in the restroom. In other words, trips to the caf� for coffee, two-hour lunches, afternoon workouts at the gym and unannounced vacations to the tropics will have to be curtailed. 2. Personal Expenses. Working at a big firm has financial advantages over and above the big firm paycheck. Things like personal phone calls, the costs of your nutritional needs and entertainment expenses are typically charged to a client or to The Firm as an administrative expense. At a small firm, such expenses cannot be hidden in a big client’s monthly statement. Sure, this may seem unfair, but once you start working at a small firm you should expect to pay for your own dinners and personal phone calls. 3. Treatment of Subordinates. While at the big firm, it is perfectly acceptable behavior to reprimand, fire or otherwise embarrass and harass subordinates as long as you have a good reason — such as you didn’t get your usual eight hours of sleep the night before. You shouldn’t be so quick, however, to do the same at the small firm. If you fire or alienate a member of the staff or a junior lawyer, there may be no one else to do your work. You will find that individuals working at smaller law firms are not as accustomed to being publicly humiliated. To survive in your new environment, you will therefore have to act like a civilized person in their company. (No one said the transition to a small law firm would be easy.) 4. Punting. One of the good things about the large firm is its many departments. Whenever stuck for an answer or put on the spot by a client, the big firm lawyer can always respond by saying something like: “I’ll run it by our tax people,” or “we’ll leave it to the litigation department,” or “one of our corporate attorneys must have fouled that up.” The problem with working at a small firm is that you are your firm’s tax person, litigation department, corporate lawyer and anything else they may need at the time. The buck, and the investigators from the state Bar, will stop with you. Not being able to bill freely, blame other lawyers for your mistakes, yell and scream at subordinates and disappear from the office with no explanation may be just enough to make you long for the big firm. The Rodent is a syndicated columnist and author of “Explaining the Inexplicable: The Rodent’s Guide to Lawyers.” His e-mail address is [email protected].

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