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The Pros and Cons of Hiring From Large Law Firms

Dana Moran

Written by

Dana Moran


November 16, 2022

The Pros and Cons of Hiring From Large Law Firms

In Smokeball’s Law + The Great Resignation report, we surveyed firms with 30 or fewer employees. One key finding? 30% of our survey respondents said they’ve increased hiring from large law firms since 2020. When big law candidates move to smaller firms, they bring unique experience and expectations with them.

“Lawyers go to large firms to get training and exposure to big cases and complex deals,” says Michele Fivel, partner at legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey, & Africa. Big law associates work with highly skilled practitioners and learn how to operate in high-pressure environments while developing time-management skills. That makes them an asset to a firm with a smaller workforce.

Here’s what your firm needs to know about bringing in new hires who are accustomed to a large-scale environment — and how best to set them up for success.

Large law firm experience can help…and hurt

Candidates from large firms are often cool under stress and expert multitaskers. And they know how to work quickly and communicate clearly, says Lily Y. Hughes, Assistant Dean of Career Services at Syracuse University College of Law.

Often, associate-level hires also “have more of a foundation with systems, procedures and policies,” says Mark O’Mara, founder of O’Mara Law Group in Orlando, Fla. Small firms, he says “horribly lack” this crucial skillset, offering large-firm hires an opportunity to make an immediate impact at their new workplace.

Those skills are often why large-firm candidates apply to smaller firms in the first place. 82% of firms who significantly increased hiring from larger firms told us that new hires were seeking a challenge or different responsibilities. At a smaller firm, legal professionals have an opportunity to get more hands-on experience. They can specialize in a specific area, and develop a deep competency and affinity for your firm’s practice areas.

However, Fivel says, these hires usually “don’t know how to litigate and have never tried a case,” creating an immediate learning curve. Autonomy and hands-on litigation are a prime selling point for candidates, but you’ll need to ensure proper training, supervision and mentorship on skills like interacting with clients.

It’s not just about salary

The higher salaries at big law firms often allow associates to pay down their student loan debt and support a mortgage and family. So the decreased salary that often comes with leaving that grind can be tough to swallow. But there’s an upside for associates considering a move to a smaller firm: a better life-work balance.

Smokeball’s survey found that large-firm candidates are more likely to request a hybrid work schedule when coming to smaller firms. However, Fivel says, most candidates are not seeking entirely remote schedules. They still recognize the value of face time with decision-makers.

Hires from large law firms also tend to expect generous PTO and a lower-pressure environment to compensate for a smaller salary. But their financial expectations are still often higher than those of associates making a lateral move. So if you’re seeking these candidates, build some flexibility into your budget.

Adjusting to a more flexible mindset

While large-firm lawyers know how to produce billable hours, those associates often, “have a big firm mentality that keeps them rigid, while smaller firms require more flexibility,” O’Mara says. He’s found that these attorneys’ expectations can be too structured, and they may have difficulty adjusting to a variable environment.

Large-firm hires may not be practiced in dealing with understanding the needs of small-firm clientele. Shifting from representing corporations and higher net worth clients to working with smaller businesses and community members requires an understanding of each client’s unique needs.

Invest in post-hire training

Although it’s important to invest time in the hiring process, the post-hire period is key to success for an employee transitioning from a large firm to a small or medium firm. Dedicating time for training and mentorship is essential in helping them adjust to your firm.

O’Mara holds staff meetings at least once a week via Zoom to remain hands-on with his new hires. He stresses that ongoing open communication is essential for a successful transition. It’s also crucial to address problems as they emerge. Give employees to air grievances, either through HR or an anonymous suggestion platform.

Hires from large firms can be a major asset to your firm. It’s all about being aware of gaps in experience, and investing in a strong transition plan.

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