Yes, Small Firms and Community Service Can Coexist

 I grew up in a time when Ken Starr, Johnnie Cochran and the Seattle WTO protests dominated the headlines; Jill Hennessy, Sam Waterston and Corbin Bernsen dispensed legal justice weekly; and every teenage girl in America knew that Cher Horowitz’ dad was a $500-an-hour litigator.  Thinking back, these are my first coherent memories of lawyers and what lawyers do.  Not the best role models to construct a career around, but they represented larger-than-life characters who planted the “lawyer” seed in my mind.  Eventually, I went to college and law school, learning more about lawyers and the law than I ever cared to know.  More importantly, I learned about the positive changes lawyers can make.  It is not always about guilt or innocence; it is not about having quotes attributed to you (“if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”).  It is about having a positive effect on people’s lives.

After law school, most graduates do not get the large firm job and they do not work in-house for a Fortune 500 company.  Instead, they hang out shingles, join small firms of one or two other attorneys, or volunteer to gain experience so they can eventually land the job they want, or any job at all.  These options have a major drawback: they lack the support network that many large firms provide.  Most often small firms don’t encourage (let alone require) pro bono work, and often there is little urging (nor expectation) that these young lawyers involve themselves in the greater legal (or non-legal) community.  This lack of well-roundedness is somewhat counterintuitive for many young attorneys, as they were the ones who, while in law school, volunteered at clinics or for political parties, and were involved in more activities than is probably healthy, so that they could build up their resume to land their dream job.  How many other professions have people begging for unpaid internships making copies?

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Eventually, reality sets in, the majority of those same driven individuals are now out of law school, did not get the job they wanted, and are being told that it does not matter if they are involved in activities outside of the office; it just matters that they are in the office and billing during working hours.  That is a pretty hard pill to swallow for anyone, let alone a group of people who are basically groomed to think they are going to make six figures and take over the world.  How do you go from thinking you are going to be the next Atticus Finch to maybe thinking Lionel Hutz is good enough?

While disheartening, this philosophy makes sense from a small-firm perspective. Smaller firms are often more susceptible to down swings in the economy and generally cannot charge as much per hour as large firms, even when the attorneys have the same amount of experience.  Additionally, small firms often lack the support structure to absorb an associate being out of the office on unbillable time.  Small firms cannot boast two support staff per attorney, and associates looking for work are not loitering in the next office.  The partners in these firms are not malevolent people who actively wish to stop community involvement; it is just that the economics of those types of activities often run counter to the realities of running a small firm.

I ran into these same hardships when I first started my legal career.  I work at a three-lawyer shop with two terrific partners, who, while supportive of my efforts to be involved, made it very clear that being involved could not interfere with my work.  If I wanted to be involved, it was up to me to do the ground work and to ensure that it did not take away from billing.  Luckily, I found a committee that met once a month and required little more than an additional hour of my time during work hours each month.  The meetings started at 5 pm, and I had to get permission to leave early to attend, but I was on my way.  From there, I have steadily increased my role in the local bar association (I am now the president-elect of the local young lawyers section), attended events on a national level with the ABA YLD, and have begun to be involved in other community-minded organizations (I was just appointed to the board of directors of a local nonprofit).  Throughout this entire process I have worked with my firm, which in turn allowed me to expand my community involvement in a positive and controlled way.  I may not be involved as much as I would like, but I still feel as though I am making a positive impact in my community and working on projects that matter to me.

What can the young lawyer working at a small firm do when they want to get involved?  For young lawyers, negotiating the line between pleasing the partners and becoming involved in the community can be tricky and nerve-wracking.  They still want to change the world, but they like their job as well.  My first piece of advice is to figure out where you want to start, and start small.  In my experience, the most surefire way to have involvement backfire is to try and do too much all at once.  If you are not careful, pretty soon you are out of the office every day, for an hour here and an hour there, and your partner wants to know why your billable hours are dropping.  Pick one thing, with a limited commitment, and try it out for a month or two.  You can always increase your involvement as time allows, but having to renege on prior commitments can reflect poorly on you and your firm.  Secondly, when approaching your partners, make sure you have a plan and can answer any questions they may pose.  For me, it was a simple as telling them what I was doing, when I would be out of the office and how I would adjust if it impacted my hours.  By knowing this information beforehand, my partners were not blindsided when I had to duck out at 4:15 on a Tuesday for a meeting three weeks later.

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Another important thing to remember when selecting your involvement is to know your audience.  If you know your partners care more about you being in your chair from 8-5 rather than whether you are there until 9 pm, it is probably best to pick something to be involved in that has regular meetings before or after work.  Sure, you might have to miss an hour or two here or there, but that will play better than missing time during the work week on a regular basis.  Our local bar has committees that often meet at 7 am or 5:30 pm because of this issue.  Not every committee meets at noon or at 4 pm.  The good thing about living in the world in this day and age is that there are many great community organizations that would jump at the chance to have more involvement from a young professional.  If you look hard enough, and are deliberate in your actions, you can be involved and still make your partners happy.

At the end of the day, every young lawyer needs to figure out what works for him or her.  Not every firm is the same, and not every solution that worked for one will work for another.  Small firms can be great and rewarding places, often bringing with them lower billable hour requirements, and more time for work/life balance—both benefits which help you on the road to making your inner law student proud and changing the world.

About the Author

Harris and Bowker LLPMackenzie Hogan is an associate at Harris & Bowker LLP in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at mhogan@harrisbowker.com or 503.293.0073

 

 

 

 

(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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