Ms. JD Staff

My First Year . . . as an Associate at a Small Law Firm

This is the second post in a new series called "My First Year..." In this series, which  appears the first week of each month, we feature interviews of women as they begin putting their JDs to work in a variety of fields all over the country. Each interviewee  answers a standard set of questions about her first year. We hope this project will give law students and new attorneys a realistic picture about what life is like during the junior years of a legal career. 

Today we bring you the interview of a first year associate at a five-attorney law firm specializing in pharmaceutical litigation in the Los Angeles area:

How did you decide to pursue this position--was this something you envisioned yourself doing when you applied to law school, or was this something you learned about in school or during your summer?

After graduating from college, I took a job at a large legal defense firm as a Project Assistant, a position best described as a poorly paid, untrained paralegal. I spent my weekdays in an interior office updating databases and . . . yeah, just updating databases. While the work was mundane, I did become friends with three younger, but very unhappy, attorneys. All three have since left. Two went to smaller firms, and one went back to school to get his PhD. However, I also became friends with many other attorneys who were very happy and continue to thrive at the firm.

After several months of racking my brain for an escape route, my next step was, you guessed it, a Masters in Architecture program at Georgia Tech. Why wouldn’t a political science graduate with little to no experience in architecture, mathematics, or engineering decide to get a Masters in Architecture? I think maybe I had just read The Fountainhead and was inspired. I’m not even a Libertarian. I didn’t last a semester. Not one to learn lessons, I took another job as a legal assistant, but this time it was at a smaller firm. I immediately felt much more “at home” at the smaller firm. The environment felt more relaxed, there were not required classes, meetings, forms, hours, etc. I just felt more freedom to do my work and not worry with other unimportant things. After working at the smaller firm for a while, I decided to try law school, and it stuck. Going into 1L on campus interviews, I knew that I preferred the atmosphere of smaller firms - Of course the decision is also easier when, like me, you’re not in the top 10%. I ended up at a five-attorney plaintiffs’ firm my 1L year and haven’t looked back. I split 2L year between a small plaintiffs’ firm in Birmingham, Alabama and a medium-sized plaintiffs’ firm in Los Angeles (a comparison worthy of its own blog entry).


A small firm is by no means an oasis, free from the stresses of the larger firm. Since there’s oftentimes not as much of an infrastructure of support staff, sometimes attorneys, especially younger ones, have to pick up the slack. This can mean more phone calls, more filing, more letter writing, less organization, etc. You just have to figure out what fits for you. While I don’t have to bill or attend as many meetings and workshops, I am making much less money than my big firm counterparts, I don’t have my own secretary, and I don’t get engraved iPods.

Describe a typical day on the job...

The typical day invariably involves client contact. With oftentimes hundreds of clients involved in one type of litigation, someone always has a question. Answering these questions usually falls on the younger attorneys.

Other common tasks involve examining medical records of clients to find proof that they used a certain type of drug and proof that they suffered an injury allegedly caused by the drug. There’s typically research to be done regarding things like pleading requirements, consolidation of cases, and jurisdictional issues. On the same token, with such a huge caseload, there’s always some kind of motion to be drafted. Oh, and there’s that pesky little task called document review - always lovingly assigned to the most inferior attorneys.

A “typical” day is hard to describe because, like at any firm, the workload waxes and wanes. The hours are probably better overall at a smaller firm, but there are still many, many late nights when there’s an approaching deadline. I usually don’t have to work weekends, but I typically try to get a little bit of a head start on Sunday evening.

What is the most rewarding thing about your job so far?

As mentioned above, I’m in contact with clients on a daily basis. The most rewarding part of the job is probably when a client thanks you for what you do.

What is the most disappointing thing about your job so far?

There are many days when I think, “I did not have to go to law school to be able to format this Excel spreadsheet.” Since secretarial type tasks are a bigger part of the gig at a smaller firm, I often feel like I’m not using my legal skills as much as I should.

I try to look at the bright side. It’s kind of nice to be involved at every step of the case from intake until settlement or trial. I feel more invested in the clients and not just someone cranking out motions for a faceless entity.

Is there anything you could have done in law school (or the summers between law school) that would have better prepared you for your position?

A few weeks ago, my superiors went out of town and left me with the task of arguing a motion in federal court – something that may happen more often if you’re at a smaller firm. I did not have a judicial clerkship after graduation, and I had only attended trials and depositions during my summer clerkships. While I felt pretty comfortable with my legal argument, I had no idea where to stand, when to speak, when to breathe… It was just a little terrifying, but I’m alive to tell the tale.

The flexibility of law school makes it an excellent time to go sit in on some hearings, but did I do that? Not so much. It seems like a small thing, but I think it can really help bring some personal confidence to the table.

What advice would you give to someone looking to find a position like yours and succeed in it?

Network! Networking is important no matter where you want to end up, but I think it’s especially important if you want to work at a smaller firm. With big firm jobs, you can rely more on your grades and activities to get you where you want to be. With smaller firms, it’s more about forming and maintaining relationships with the attorneys. Smaller firms seldom hire new attorneys, so you have to be a little savvier, especially in this economy (yeah, I said it). Also, once you’re hired, these relationships will help tremendously in a small firm environment because of the practice of referring cases.

Like this post? Check out last month's post, "My First Year as...a Federal Court of Appeals Law Clerk."

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