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The popular private law firm internship – is it for you?

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The view into the world of private practice may appear very cloudy to law students.  In fact, after speaking with many students, it is sometimes surprising how little they understand about the basics of law firms.  Without this basic understanding, how can you make an informed decision on your career path?  Answer: you cannot.

So, to help clear through the mist and bring clarity to the world of law firms, below is a breakdown of the some commonalities and differences that will help you decide if this work environment is the right fit for your career.

Please keep in mind that these are generalities, and there are exceptions to rule.  But having a general understanding of reality is never a bad thing.

Commonalities among firms

Around 70% of all practicing attorneys in the United States work at a private law firm.  These firms come in all different sizes, practice areas, leadership, ownership, locations, and missions.  However, no matter the differences, all law firms are united by one defining characteristic – they are private businesses that generate revenue by providing legal services to clients.

Here are three other hallmarks of law firms:

Billable hours: The “billable hour” is a law firm’s method of measuring the amount of legal services provided to its clients. Simultaneously while they work, attorneys record the time taken to perform each task – typically in 6-minute increments delineated as 0.1 of an hour. If you are to be a private firm lawyer (or intern), you must get used to and be comfortable with defining your work day in 6 minute increments.

Client generation: Law firms operate within the service industry. This means that attorneys at law firms typically must engage in salesmanship, networking and relationship development in order to attract and retain clientele. The bigger clientele you develop, the more control you will have over your career in private practice.

Higher salaries: Salary ranges depend largely on the size and location of the law firm. That being said, attorneys in private practice can generally expect to earn higher salaries than attorneys with their same experience level practicing in-house or in public interest.

Firm sizes

Large Law Firms (100 or more attorneys)
Attorneys employed at large law firms tend to be the highest paid and most recognizable attorneys in their field. “Big law” typically has long-standing relationships with the largest businesses in the world and, consequentially, are able to charge the highest hourly rates.  Moreover, they are able to assemble teams of attorneys to handle the types of matters that major corporations frequently encounter, such as high capital, complex corporate transactions and extremely document-intensive litigations and investigations.  In sum, big firms are built to handle big clients.

Here some additional general characteristics of big firms:

  • Salaries are highest and usually bonuses are given to
  • It is difficult for associates to generate clientele because the rates are so high.
  • Hours are very long / annual billable hour requirements are high.
  • Attorneys are perceived to have a strong pedigree, which makes them marketable for jobs in all areas.
  • You are not guaranteed to make partner. It is a business decision on the firm’s part.

Mid-sized (10–100 attorneys) and small Law Firms (1-9 attorneys)
Over 70% of all attorneys in private practice are employed at mid-sized or small law firms and, as the legal profession continues to adapt to economic changes caused by the Great Recession, that percentage continues to grow. In other words, if you want a career in private practice, you will likely end up at a small or mid-sized law firm.

Here are some additional characteristics of mid-sized and small firms:

  • Salaries are lower than large firms.
  • Associates may get paid extra for bringing in clients.
  • Overhead (rent, salaries, etc.) tends to be lower, so annual billable hour requirements are lower.
  • More flexibility / less corporate formality.

Overall, as a law student (striving to become an associate) you should assess the work environments available in differing size firms and try to understand which will fit you best.  Everyone is different.  You have to find what’s for you.

Firm structure

All attorneys in private practice are walking, talking small businesses.  But not all attorneys are created equal within a law firm.  The title may say a lot about an attorney’s role, seniority, compensation, and stature.  Generally speaking, attorneys practicing at a private law firm hold the title of partner, counsel or associate. Each title delineates a distinct role at the firm.

Partner: Partners are at the top level of a law firm and their role is to develop and maintain client relationships or be highly knowledgeable in their practice area. They are the experts.  The rainmakers.  They are extremely valuable to a firm’s viability, longevity and success.

Associates: Associates are attorneys typically in their first to ninth year of practice. Their primary role is to service the needs of the partners. In a sense, an associate’s clients are the partners/counsel to whom they serve.

Counsel: Counsel at a law firm (sometimes called “of counsel”) is typically some hybrid of a partner and associate. Counsel typically have practiced more than nine years but do not have sufficient client relationships to become a partner.  Some firm’s promote associates to counsel before becoming partner.

Having a familiarity with each title and the role that it signifies will help you to demystify the private practice work environment and find you place as well.

Max Rosenthal Maxwell D. Rosenthal is in-house counsel at a large media and entertainment company in New York City. He is also the author of "The Bridge: How to Launch Your Career through a Legal Internship" (Lexis Nexis 2015), which can be found on his website. He also frequently speaks at law schools and bar associations on topics related to career development and legal experiential learning. He can be reached at Max@bridgethebook.com.