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On the Radar: The Size of the Firm – Finding the Right Fit for You

The size of the firm: finding the right fit for you
Michael Zippel, Lawyer
K&L Gates

K&L Gates is a US-based international law firm which is very large globally. At present, its Australian arm is mid-sized in the local legal market. All law firms obviously (and necessarily) differ from one another in a variety of ways. A firm’s size (in terms of number of lawyers) is a factor that will have an almost universal impact in influencing the kind of experience a junior lawyer will have. From my experience at K&L Gates, starting your legal career at a mid-sized firm is the perfect environment to both develop a broad range of skills through exposure to interesting work and a diverse range of clients as well as access to exciting career opportunities and progression.

At a mid-sized firm, you will get to know the vast majority of your colleagues in your clerkship, and almost everyone during your graduate year. This has immense benefits as a junior – the most important of which is that when you need help (and you will need help…often), it’s so much easier to ask people to give you a hand if you know them personally. And, at least in my experience, people are extremely willing to help junior lawyers.

A corollary of knowing people from different practice groups around the firm is that you can get exposure to different matters across different teams. The reason for this is that smaller firms run a leaner operation than their Big Law brethren, meaning that when a big matter comes in the door, juniors will often have to mobilise and work across different teams in order to get the job done. Not only is this great for keeping you busy, but exposure to different practice groups and areas of law as a junior will make you a better lawyer in the long run. Through it you gain different skills and exposure to many areas of law (which in turn helps you ascertain what areas you do and don’t like!)

Don’t get me wrong – if you know from the start of your career that you want to focus on a particular area of law, and that you plan on staying there for all of eternity, then by all means you should aim to specialise from day one. However, subjects you do at law school do not always correspond with the practice of that type of law on a daily basis. I hated the Deals and Mergers & Acquisitions subjects when I was at uni, but now I’ve found myself in a transactional M&A team and absolutely loving it. The take away point is that if you aren’t 100% sure what you want to do or where your career will go, having a diverse experience base of experience is invaluable. Or even if you are 100% sure, it doesn’t hurt to try other things, even if all it does it validate your certainty.

Another feature of many mid-sized firms that will benefit your development as a junior is having responsibility for your own files early on. Big firms have relatively small partnerships and heaps of staff lawyers (being special counsels, senior associates, lawyers, graduates and clerks). If you are at the bottom of this pile, there are a lot of hands touching your work before it reaches the partner and ultimately goes to the client. Inherent in being a smaller firm is that there are fewer people between the juniors and partners. Partners will be more reliant on you, and you will get client contact and responsibility for files from an early stage – which can be daunting – but you will learn much faster when you get direct feedback from the boss on the quality of your work. On top of this, having direct access to a partner means you also have access to their knowledge base and the opportunity to develop through watching them do their thing – an invaluable way to learn.

The overall message here is that when you are applying for clerkships, don’t just apply to the same firms your friends are, or the first ones that are listed when you Google “Melbourne law firms”. Do your research and take some time to think about where you see yourself in 10 years, and what you really want in terms of professional development to give you the best possible start to your career.


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