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Though large firms grab headlines with salary increases, layoffs and new hires, opportunities abound at small firms for those willing to trade theater tickets and massive paychecks for courtroom exposure and practical experience. David M. Koller, a first-year associate with McDonnell & Associates, a Cherry Hill, N.J., firm with six lawyers, was given his first complete case within two months of joining the firm, and, eight months later, he is already sharing responsibility for a large part of the firm’s workload. John McGovern Jr., who is now a second-year associate with a five-attorney firm in Scranton, Pa., said that the first time he was given an assignment, a senior lawyer walked him through it and reviewed his work. The second time, he worked on his own. And, while it may be difficult to paint a uniform picture of the first-year lawyer experience, five court victories in private practice — including four at the appellate level — is not what typically comes to mind. Only one year out of law school, Jeffery Boyd, 28, has achieved this level of success. While hands-on, court-intensive experiences are traditionally associated with a district attorney’s or public defender’s office, for private practice, the key to getting the same exposure right out of law school seems to be the decision to start at a small firm. The benefits of working for a large firm — high starting salary, steady client base, prestige and extensive basic training among other things — have obvious appeal. But for young lawyers who have different priorities, bigger isn’t necessarily better. McGovern spent a summer working with a large firm before he graduated from law school. Looking back, he said, “For a second-year associate, I feel that I’m definitely further ahead on the learning curve than I would have been if I had stayed with [a large law firm]. … Now, when I am given work [at the small firm], there is more to do with it. I am told, ‘Here is the client’s phone number. Take off, and if you have any questions, ask.’” Ellen Fielitz began working for Ratner Prestia, a 31-lawyer firm, during her 2L summer. She is now a first-year associate at the firm and also feels as though her first-year experience has been different than had she worked at a large firm. “I was surprised,” she said. “Compared to a lot of my classmates, I had a broad experience and did some important things that people weren’t doing at [large] firms. Of course all of the work I do is supervised, but I’m given a lot of responsibility and a lot of room to develop my own style.” It is not as though first- or second-year associates at large law firms have less work than their small-firm counterparts. On the contrary, they are given many assignments to complete and often work very long hours. The difference appears to be that small-firm associates get more individual responsibility for cases and better opportunities for client contact. For example, James Creel is in his first year with Saul Ewing and has second-chaired some proceedings. But he said a lot of his time is devoted to writing assignments. “I started out with typical research and writing assignments, then branched out into motion writing, and then began writing different appeals in securities litigation,” he said. Vijay Kapoor, a first-year associate with Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, is working on an important labor negotiation, but he will not be handling it alone. “Most of what I do includes attending meetings, coordinating between chief negotiators and attorneys in other law firms, and during negotiations I take notes. I [also] follow people around, doing spot research,” said Kapoor. And although he often spends time doing “things like legal research and drafting briefs or opinion letters,” he said, he finds this work to be satisfying. “Overall, my experience has been a very good one,” said Kapoor. “I feel as if the work is meaningful toward the end.” Boyd’s has been an especially unique small-firm experience. After his 2002 graduation from the Villanova University School of Law, Boyd joined his father, Craig S. Boyd, at Boyd & Karver in Boyertown, Pa. One year later, the junior Boyd has argued and won four cases in appellate court, one case in trial court, and influenced an amendment of the drug forfeiture law in Pennsylvania. “While small-firm practice is known for presenting tremendous opportunities for aspiring young lawyers to cut their teeth earlier in their careers than in larger firms, it is truly remarkable to see a first-year independently achieve the volume and quality of litigation victories that Jeffery has accomplished,” said Elaine Petrossian, assistant dean for career strategy and advancement at Villanova. But in general, Petrossian said, the small-firm market often presents unique challenges to job seekers. While some small firms hire entry-level associates, most do not. And those that do don’t do their hiring on an annual basis, instead hiring attorneys as they need them. So graduates looking for jobs in small firms can’t expect to get hired by simply sending their resumes to firms during the regular fall recruiting period. For 2002 Villanova Law graduate Jansen Honberger, it was a matter of knowing the right people at the right time. Honberger began working for four-attorney Gibble & Gardner, with offices in Lititz and Ephrata, Pa., immediately after graduation. But he actually began working at the firm during his junior year of college. Honberger said that he first offered to help out on a volunteer basis and soon found himself serving as a courier and filing court documents. And by sheer luck, the attorney said, he walked in to partner Stephen Gibble’s office, and, in a bind for research assistance, Gibble told him to show up in a jacket the next day for his new internship. The unpaid internship turned into consecutive summers, Honberger said, with increased responsibility each year and extensive client contact even before law school ended. Honberger was asked to remain at the firm after finishing school, he said, because he’d already been at Gibble & Gardner for five years at that point. Honberger said the day he received his license to practice in Pennsylvania, he also received his own caseload. In addition to increased responsibility, small-firm associates tout the accessibility of partners and senior associates as an advantage. Koller said the firm’s other attorneys spend time making sure his work is on the right track and carefully review his writing. “In a small-firm environment, it is especially important to make sure that you’re representing yourself and the firm in a positive manner,” Koller said. “[So], I submit most of the work I do to my mentor and a partner, and they make sure I’m producing the kind of work that they would want to show their clients. … [My mentor] works with me on everything. … [She] reads, revises, prioritizes my work, and prepares me for any appearances I have. But anytime I have a question, I don’t hesitate to ask anyone in the firm.” During Fielitz’s summer at Ratner Prestia, the firm held special training sessions that she found especially helpful. Each week, the summer associates met to hear new speakers on important topics. These summer sessions, combined with the assistance and feedback she received from attorneys, proved effective, she said. When she accepted an offer from the firm after graduation, Fielitz said, she felt that she would be ready for full-time practice. And that feeling, Widener Law senior career counselor William Nicholson said, is what helps keep new hires at small firms. Nicholson said that feedback and consistent improvement are important to beginning attorneys, and, in those areas, small firms are hard to beat. Jennifer Batchelor contributed to this article.

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