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From the first year of law school, future attorneys constantly compare themselves to their peers — LSAT scores, GPAs, class rankings, the prestige of their internships and the size of their first checks. So why are some first-year associates forgoing the traditional silk-stocking, six-figure lifestyle for smaller offices, smaller firms and smaller salaries? Smaller firms offer benefits that their larger brethren can’t: Individual recognition, a place at the table, a chance for a partnership in the visible future — and a life outside the office. Chris R. Shaw realized early on that he didn’t want to be part of a large firm. During his first year in Georgia State University’s law school, Shaw met with an associate and a partner from a major Atlanta firm. In the elevator on the way to the meeting, the partner and associate introduced themselves — to each other. “That stuck in my brain,” said Shaw, who joined the eight-lawyer Cumming, Ga., firm of Boling, Rice, Martin & McGruder in August. “It was sort of odd.” Michael S. Reeves, partner in the Atlanta firm of Gorby, Reeves & Peters, said the firm has no problems attracting associates with strong academic records to join his staff of more than a dozen lawyers. “We’ve been blessed with the ability to get some well-qualified people,” he said. “We need people who can come in and contribute and help — it’s an immediate opportunity … and they can see an immediate, tangible result.” LOAN-DEBT PRESSURE Still, the spectre of student loan debt drives some graduates to sign on with the highest bidder. “Sometimes when we talk to students, they have no choice because they’ve had to incur tremendous debt,” Reeves said. How do smaller firms compete with the lure of $100,000+ starting salaries and five-figure bonuses? “It’s not easy finding super-qualified, experienced lawyers in the litigation field — it’s tough for smaller or medium-sized firms to do,” said Raymond J. Kurey, a partner in Atlanta’s Dennis, Corry & Porter, which has 19 lawyers. “What we offer is lots of hands-on responsibility — from depositions to trials to client contact — right out of the gate. If someone has a long-term view on things, they will do well.” And there is the perception among many hiring managers that homegrown talent tends to stick around. “People tend to stay with us,” said Angela Martin McKinney, the “Martin” in Boling, Rice, Martin & McGruder. “I don’t think it has to do with money or [community activities] — it’s how you want to live your life Monday through Friday.” At Atlanta’s Goodman McGuffey Aust & Lindsey, “two of the partners started as first-year associates,” said C. Wade McGuffey Jr. “But others have stayed less than a year.” In the 1990s, when larger firms “raised salaries publicly, [first-year associates] didn’t stay long,” McGuffey recalled. While his firm used to pay about “75 percent of what larger firms pay,” he estimates it now offers 60 percent to 65 percent. But McGuffey believes that smaller firms offer a lot of advantages. “A shorter path to partnership, more responsibility, more contact with clients and more opportunities to get into court,” he said. Associate Robert A. Luskin, who joined the firm after graduating from Mercer University’s law school last year, agrees. “Because it’s a smaller firm, I’m able to get my hands in a lot of areas of law quicker,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a number.” IDEAL PROFILE MAY VARY Of course, many grads don’t have the luxury of turning down the big firms. Many new grads have the makings of fine lawyers, but might not meet the precise profile that some firms are seeking. “We don’t necessarily need a person who’s bar review and top 10 in their class,” said Robin E. Haynes, an associate with Likens & Blomquist, a national real estate specialty firm with two offices in metro Atlanta. “We need people who are bright and eager to learn.” William A. Wehunt agrees. “If they’re not No. 1 in their class, the larger law firms won’t even talk to them,” he said. To his way of thinking, that’s not such a bad thing. “Larger firms are sweatshops,” said Wehunt, who counts five attorneys in his firm. “That’s why they pay these people — they put them in a grinder.” Maria D. Santiago-Warren joined the Stockbridge firm of Wehunt & Associates in February, after five years as a JAG lawyer. From Alabama, she researched Atlanta’s job market for first-year associates and “was pleasantly surprised.” But while money was a factor, family and geography ranked even higher on her list. “Money is important — I have a 14-year-old who has to go to college — but other things are more important to me,” said Santiago-Warren. In her current job, she said she can — with a little planning — schedule lunch with her 5-year-old and stay “actively involved” in her children’s lives. At the same time, she can see a promising future with the firm. A LIFE OUTSIDE OFFICE Others realize that not every ambitious law school grad wants to work 80-hour weeks in obscurity and wait 10 years to make partner. Boling Rice encourages associates to cultivate a life outside the office, believing that it will benefit the firm in the long run. The firm even picks up the tab for its employees’ community-related activities. While schedules tend to be more humane in a smaller firm, that doesn’t mean first-year associates keep bankers’ hours either. “That’s a stereotypical thing you hear,” said B. David Ladner, hiring partner for Atlanta-based Goldner, Sommers, Scrudder & Bass. But he admits “we’re not a real crowded place at 7, 8 o’clock at night, and we are not a real crowded place on weekends.” Much of it depends on the projects associates take on and the kind of law they choose to practice. “There are no mandatory weekend hours,” said Dennis Corry’s Kurey. “But in litigation firms, there are times when you’re preparing for a trial or trying a case when you work a lot of nights and weekends.” Smaller firms often tout themselves as being flexible in terms of hours. “Our expectations are that they will get the work done that needs to be done,” said Reeves of Gorby Reeves. “But there is a lot of flexibility about when it gets done.” One of his people “recently pulled an all-nighter,” he said. “[But] that’s not the routine.” And then there’s the work. Smaller firms rely on first-year associates to learn, grow and start pulling their own weight. That means that lawyers might have a better shot at doing what they’ve spent years anticipating — practicing law. “The goal is to take a new attorney and get them breaking even in about six months,” said Goodman McGuffey’s McGuffey. “It usually takes a little longer.” And there’s the loyalty quotient. While small firms typically only take on one or two new associates every few years, many hiring partners admit that they are looking for the people who, five to 10 years down the road, will be sitting across the partners’ table. “We hire them with that in mind,” said Boling Rice’s McKinney, anticipating that they’ll “own this business some day.” But while it may take less time for young lawyers to get their names on the letterhead at a small firm, the path to partnership might not be as clearly defined. “There is no set partnership track,” said Kurey. “It varies based on a lot of factors.” Reeves agrees. “It’s more a matter of when they start manifesting partnership attributes,” he said. Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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