Small Firm Hiring in a Tough Economy

It’s a rough legal job market. It was a rough job market when I opened my criminal law practice in 2009, and as far as I can tell, things haven’t gotten much better.

I know this because I routinely get unsolicited resumes from third-years and recent grads from top law schools who are looking for jobs. These are grads with internships, law review, even state-level or federal district court clerk experience.

While I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, I’m under no illusion that anyone entering law school in 2008 was anticipating applying to The Chetson Firm upon graduation. Heck, when I went to law school, I thought I was headed to BigLaw, too.

Times have changed, but you can improve your chances of being hired by a small firm.

It is important to get some practical experience. My work with a Public Defender’s office for a year and a half in law school—which included second chairing felony trials—gave me a better understanding of how criminal law works than the criminal procedure, evidence, and death penalty courses I took in law school. But if you think that alone will get you a job at a small firm or as an addition to a solo practice, you are mistaken.

Law is a profession, but it is also a business. And a business requires all the other things—from marketing to billing to sales and new clients—to survive that too few law students know how to do. It’s great that you wrote a brief in that death penalty case. It’s great that you spent a summer in a district attorney’s office trying your own misdemeanor bench trials. It’s fantastic that you worked at the public defender’s office on client interviews, researching suppression motions, and appearing in court.

But there are tons of lawyers out there—including lawyers with much more experience—looking for work. You can differentiate yourself by showing you have skills that are required to run a successful small business, but that are rare among lawyers.

Here are some ideas:

  • Do you have marketing experience—and by experience, I mean, actual work reflected in proven results?
  • Do you have sales experience?
  • Accounting, collections, or billing experience?
  • Have you run direct mail campaigns in the past, or appeared on radio?
  • Can you write? I mean: can you really write?
  • Do you have a vast network of friends and acquaintances in your community?
  • Are you tech-savvy? Do you know how to set up and maintain a network for a small office?
  • Are you hooked into social networks?
  • Do you know how to budget for a business?
  • Do you have hustle?
  • Have you demonstrated a willingness to work whatever hours are required to get something done? Even on short notice?

All private law is a business, whether you’re in BigLaw or a solo practitioner. In order to run a business, all of these kinds of tasks—from marketing, to managing billing and accounts receivable, to equipping the office with the right technology, to client care—need to be accomplished.

BigLaw has support staff. Small firms have little or none. If you want to make yourself attractive to a potential small firm employer, being able to do or quickly learn and take ownership of non-legal tasks in the office can make the difference.

If you know how to market effectively, then you’ve just made yourself incredibly valuable to a small office that’s going to want you to contribute to the office’s bottom line in the not-too-distant future.

Resumes that speak solely to law school or clerk-related accomplishments can make a negative impression on a small firm owner who wonders whether this person will be bored, unable, or unwilling to perform at least some of those important duties I listed above.

The best resumes I get—at least from my point of view as the owner of a small firm—are the resumes that demonstrate past, proven results at these tasks. The best attitudes are those of recent grads who understand that, in a small firm, the opportunity to practice law is created if the firm is operating well from a business perspective.

By showing you can help keep the business end of things running smoothly, you can land yourself a job in a small firm. More importantly, you make yourself much more self-sufficient should that small firm job not work out.


Raleigh criminal lawyer Damon Chetson represents people charged with serious felonies, misdemeanors, and driving while impaired offenses. He is licensed to practice in North Carolina’s state courts and in the federal courts of the Eastern District of North Carolina. He was recently profiled by MSNBC.

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