Fewer law students are now heading into law schooling thinking they’ll be rolling in dough right out of school. But even as the economic reality of big-firm hiring (or the relative lack thereof) sinks in, too few students are focusing early on the opportunities of small-firm practice.

This past weekend, I spent almost three hours in the woods with my daughter and our dog, trying our hand for the first time at letterboxing. After tweeting about that adventure, a law school friend replied, “How do you have time for this?! You’re a lawyer now! BE BUSIER!” Needless to say, he’s one of the relative few of our class who landed an associate position at a huge, international firm. I have time for such things because I work at small, hometown firm, where there is no such thing as a minimum billable hours requirement.

Look Now At Who You Know

I recently got an out-of-the-blue message from a law student acquaintance, asking if we could meet over coffee. Specifically, he wanted to discuss how I’d gotten my job, when many of my class remain un- or under-employed. I was happy to meet and share encouraging words (since it really was too late for any alternative message). Luckily, I’m confident this law student will do just fine. He has many things that make him more employable: prior work experience, maturity, good communication skills, and – perhaps most important for those also currently suffering through law school – a willingness to create and leverage personal networks.

Networking during law school is easy to avoid, but doing so is a huge mistake. Most students will take time away from their academic obligations in order to travel to a long-shot interview. Those same students should be focusing on taking time at home (even when law school is a temporary home) to meet practicing lawyers and judges. Look to your professors, especially adjuncts, for additional community ties. Talk to the students who are from your school’s city and ask them to introduce you to lawyers they know locally. Even if you don’t plan to practice where you attend school, the practitioners in your school’s town will likely be the easiest to access. Take advantage of their expertise.

Consider Alternatives to BigLaw

My law school experience was that career services and my classmates alike over-emphasized the importance of trying to get a big-firm job. I was quite surprised when my school’s administration later shared the statistic that the majority of our students ended up in firms with between 5 and 15 attorneys. While that may not yet be the reality at your school, it’s worth thinking early about alternatives to big-firm practice: small firms, and public service.

Both small firm life and public service may allow a lifestyle that’s less concerned with billable hours. Government employees may work fewer hours than their private-sector counterparts, while good benefits packages help equalize any relatively lower pay.  Small firm practice will allow you to interact directly with your clients, which can be quite rewarding. Public service will enable you to work on issues closer to your heart.

Finally, there’s always the opportunity of solo practice, should you be brave enough to strike out on your own.

More than Just Work – Life Balance

It’s easy for me to tout the benefits of having pretty much every weekend off. But that’s a perk that comes with other drawbacks, like the relatively lower earning potential of being in a smaller community, or relatively little chance to work on high-profile cases. Deciding what your life after law school will look like takes more than just a general balancing of how much you value money over sleep. Rather, it should involve some real soul searching about who you are and who you could be.

Each time you apply for a job, try to envision yourself there. There are the basic considerations about time, money, and location. Think also about culture, community, and the long-term future. It is difficult to tell where you might end up, but thinking through the many consequences of picking an employer will help you make realistic, informed choices when the time is right. The added bonus of doing this type of reflection during law school is that it can make the process of selecting law school courses much easier.

The legal job market is not what it used to be. If the advice you’re getting at school has yet to catch up with this brave new world, give yourself the advantage of thinking through your post-graduation options before it’s too late.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/strocel/3869782328/)