Small Consumer Firm

Exploring the World of Small Firms That Represent Individuals

"Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life, as a dog does his master's carriage. Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw on it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still." Thoreau

What about Ruth? As you recall, she decided she would leave her firm. She completed the Career Options Exercise and checked off the following settings and areas of interest:

C. Small law firms (less than 10 lawyers, including solo practitioners who are 50% of all practicing lawyers) representing individuals, consumers and small businesses)

  • family law and divorce
  • criminal defense
  • plaintiff injury
  • employee discrimination
  • immigration/asylum
  • healthcare

D. Public Interest Small and Large Law Firm

  • constitutional law
  • environmental protection litigation
  • social security/disability and welfare rights
  • civil rights/human rights
  • education law

She wasn't sure which one she wanted to be her focus so she decided to explore and evaluate all of them. She also was interested in finding out whether every one of her checks represented a realistic option for a lawyer - a setting in which many lawyers can be found.

She quickly determined that the traditional world of law firms referred to as "public interest" while she was in law school was extremely limited consisting of three public law firms (the local ACLU affiliate, one representing children and an environmental center) and the local affiliates of the national Legal Services programs. In talking to a friend at the children's organization she found out that all of them advertise their openings and are usually inundated with as many as four hundred resumes.

She started to investigate the world of small law firms. She recalled the statistic that said that 70% of all lawyers are in private practice, about two-thirds of this 70% are in firms of five or less lawyers, and half of this 70% are sole practitioners. She needed to overcome her uneasiness about even considering such small firms. While in law school, she had gotten the impression that small firms were composed of lawyers who "couldn't make it in big firms", "they don't hire" and "I do not have the skills they need". She was struck, however, by the comments of Catherine Steane, a graduate of Yale Law School which she read in Lawful Pursuit.

"I found a position in a private law firm with one principal and two other associates representing tenants threatened with eviction and bringing wrongful eviction lawsuits for tenants evicted without just cause. ..I handled my cases largely by myself, making most of the tactical decisions, yet consulting with my boss on almost every case. .... I loved my job. I never worked weekends. I had a pleasant work environment and a great deal of autonomy and responsibility without feeling that I had been cast to sea without a life preserver. My work was an extension of my political beliefs and I got a great deal of satisfaction from the feeling that I provided needed, high quality services to people in crisis .....What I learned as a part of the "plaintiffs' bar" is that there are lots of jobs out there not in the traditional public interest agency mold where one can do good works for everyday people and still make a reasonable living."

Because of this and since these firms represented such a large segment of the law firm market, she ignored her concerns and pressed on. She decided to find out what the realistic area of practices were for those representing individuals and went to the Legal Practice Areas in and read more about the areas she was attracted to.

One distinction she became aware of was that many of the small private law firms were involved in litigation while the majority of the public interest organizations devoted their time to organizing, education (either in person or in writing) and lobbying.

She knew she wanted to work for the underrepresented members of society but was uncertain whether she wanted to advocate for them in the courtroom or by using other approaches. On the whole, she still felt like remaining in trial practice, but so much of her energy had gone into conflicts, internal and external, that she began to have some doubts. Moreover, she was increasingly aware that litigation had its limits as a tool for social change. Still, the memory of her father's accomplishments as a litigator, and the evidence of her own undeniable skills, kept her focused on trial practice. "After all," she thought, "it would be a shame to abandon a calling just because I am exercising in the wrong environment. Let's take the more conservative strategy for starters, and see what my classmates' experience has been in other settings."

Her next step was to go to where she found hundreds of lawyers in her geographic area practicing in these areas.

She called the law school career office and the professor who teaches family law and asked for references to alumni/ae - local lawyers who practiced in those areas, especially those who had previously indicated a willingness to be "mentors". She scheduled three informational sessions a week (one for lunch and two over the telephone in the evening). By the end of a month she had an impression of the similarities of practice in these five fields as well as the range of differences based on physical space, personalities, temperament, and income.

She remembered the National Lawyers Guild and called the president of the local chapter who suggested she join and participate in the activities of one or more of the committees that appealed to her; i.e., spousal abuse, racism, employment discrimination and immigration. At a meeting of the spousal abuse committee she was introduced to a graduate of her law school who had left a partnership at a large law firm where her practice was limited to commercial litigation and had formed a firm with two other women. Building on her pro bono involvement with shelters and battered women's programs, she was limiting her practice to domestic relations. One of her partners, whose expertise was in employment law, was taking plaintiff workplace discrimination cases and the third, formerly an insurance defense litigator, was representing plaintiffs in toxic tort and other environmental injury suits.

She did not need to go through the Take Control Exercise again. She knew what was important. She needed to have some autonomy - control over her life, an environment where she could be comfortable being herself, a place where she would feel intellectually challenged, and most important, have significant responsibility and the feeling she was doing something that had some meaning to her.

She was convinced by her exploration that there were law firms where her criteria could be satisfied. There was still a nagging doubt, however, about whether she wanted to be a litigator.