Big Firm vs Small Firm: A Big Fuss Over A Small Itch

Raphael Kok says size doesn’t matter.

Young aspiring lawyers are an inquisitive bunch, especially at career talks. The question most frequently asked is whether they ought to join a big firm or small firm (with “Should I do litigation or corporate?” coming a close second). Almost always, I have to pause and draw a deep breath, before launching into my answer.

No, not because it’s a hard question to answer. Rather, because it takes some time to explain why it’s the wrong question to ask in the first place.

Blurred Lines

No two firms are quite alike. Not all big firms are peas of the same pod, and likewise for small firms. The working environment in BIG FIRM A may actually share more in common with small firm x than BIG FIRM B. Stereotyping isn’t helpful. Size matters not.

Let’s draw a parallel example with the entertainment industry. TV series are like small firms: tight budget, modest production, more scripts to write and scenes to shoot, lesser-known actors, narrow audience, makes money in a slow slog through syndication, leasing and ads. Movies are like big firms: multi-million budget funded by big studios, exude star power with top actors and directors, larger international reach, cashes in within months through ticket sales.

Now, imagine yourself being a starry-eyed actor or actress, wondering which route to take as a stepping stone. Sign up for a TV deal? But what if you’re perceived as a TV star who’s only able to act in the same static stage-like sets, and struggle to level up to Hollywood (like the cast of ‘Friends’ and ‘The X-Files’)? Try the movies instead? But what if you’re typecast to play the same kind of supporting roles, over and over again (like Sean Bean, who can’t seem to ever survive pass the end credits)?

Throw those qualms away! The days of strict compartmentalisation are long gone. A growing number of TV stars – George Clooney, Will Smith and Jason Segel – have successfully transitioned to cinema. Joss Whedon, a director, proves that he’s just as good at slaying vampires on weekly prime-time as assembling superheroes to save the world from aliens and robots come blockbuster summertime. Some adaptable actors, like comedian Steve Carell, switch between movies and TV seamlessly.

Likewise, in law, the line between big firms and small firms is blurring.

Thou shalt not pass Season 1!

Myths Debunked

The debate of big firms versus small firms is peppered with the same ‘ol trite and template arguments. Let’s debunk a few:

  1. Earning vs Learning: It is commonly said that those in big firms earn more but learn less (and vice versa for small firms). What nonsense. Some small firms pay well, but their niche practice narrows their associate’s exposure to limited areas of law. Some big firms pay modestly, but allow and expect junior counsels to run hearings. Ultimately, how well you are remunerated and trained boils down to your boss. Some are tough, some are nice, some are a little loony like Steve Carell in ‘The Office’. Impress your boss, and he will invest into your future.
  2. BIG DEALS vs small deals: Big firms proudly trumpet that their lawyers handle big briefs. But it’s all hot air. Firstly, big firms are saddled with their own share of sewage sludge. Banking is a major pit-hole, where hordes of unlucky associates battle against dust and dust mites each day. Even Hollywood excretes putrid waste once in a while (like the endless stream of Nicholas Cage movies). Secondly, there are various boutique firms specialising in construction, corporate, shipping and intellectual property highly sought after by big corporations. Top counsel like Malik Imtiaz and Tommy Thomas keep lean outfits, yet have no trouble attracting high-profile clients. Small hands can do great deeds. Even a dwarf from Westeros can win awards and admiration.
  3. Loving Culture vs Loveless Culture: Small firms like to portray themselves as a family unit – caring, sharing, living to the full spirit of Ohana. Big firms, in contrast, are accused of harbouring movie star egos throwing tantrums and stationeries at their poor minions. Not fair at all. Small firms are also prone to breed heartless tyrants, and most big firms defer important decision-making like performance review to a body of consensus. Juniors – wherever they are – suffer long hours and unreasonable deadlines. Firms – big and small – are happy to spoil their staff with  trips overseas. Look beyond the shiny fences and smiley portraits. Not every small family is happy. Not every big family is divided.

Banking dangerous.

Once Upon A Time

Okay, enough of fictional stuff and boring facts. Whilst I usually shy away from making references to my own personal experience (on the basis that my experience has not developed enough diversity and depth to be taken as a strong authority), I think this one’s worth telling.

Okay, story time:

“I chambered at a big firm. Pay was good, prestige was high. Work flew in from all directions, at all hours. Partners squeezed our blood to the last drop. Associates bullied us into doing their dirty grunt work. My own master didn’t care to check whether I was dead or alive, except when he needed to translate or index something. It felt like winter came, and would never end.

Did I whine and give up? No, I took matters in my own hands. I bid my time, keeping an eye out for a sliver of salvation. Then one day, the phone at the chambering pen rang. No one wanted to pick it up, so I did (anything was better than stamping page numbers on stacks of documents, anyway). One work led to another, and eventually I was summoned to the office of a senior partner, and given an assignment that put my brain cells to the test – at last.

Months passed, and I took on more and more substantive work. Close to the end of pupillage, my master offered to retain me. But I declined. The senior partner had offered much earlier, which I gladly accepted. (For the following months, my master was visibly sulky at what he deem as a betrayal, but I kept cruisin’ and like, you know, shake it off). Life was great, under my new boss. Assisting on big cases, managing my own small cases. Having an array of cases ranging from contract, tort, trust, property, corporate, insolvency, intellectual property, employment, human rights, and so on. Late nights in office, vague memories in Bali. Ah, the best of all worlds.”

Morale of the story: Fresh out of university, we all start from zero. Fresh into employment, no one owes us anything. We all are masters of our own destinies. We have to fight our own battles. Every path is fraught with challenges. Every path bears its own rewards.

A gentle reminder to every soon-to-be lawyer.

And The Winner Is…

Small pond, big pond, doesn’t matter. We’ve all got to swim to stay afloat, either way. We’ve all got to fish to stay alive, eventually.

Stop seeing legal practice as an imaginary fork of two divergent paths, but instead as a labyrinth of countless possibilities. Don’t judge a firm by its size. Dive deeper beyond the stereotypes. Research and survey. Shortlist the firms that catch your interest, and compare their individual qualities. Then choose wisely.

Not all of us will get it right, the first few tries. That’s normal. Movie and TV plots are full of twist and turns. So is life. Law is not as simple as black and white. Neither is a legal practice.

Yes, as young aspiring lawyers, you all want answers to guide you through your legal journey. So start by asking questions that cut through the shallow illusions and unravel the complexities of reality.

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Posts by Raphael Kok

Raphael was named after an angel and Italian Renaissance painter. However, he does not have a halo on his head and consistently scored a ‘C’ grade in art class back in school (no, ‘C’ is not for Consistency). Previously a litigation lawyer, he now works in a multinational company giving legal advice to those who need it, and those who think they don’t. In his free time, he travels through the past, present and future – through the sheer power of imagination, a few shots of single-malt whiskey and Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memory’.

Posted on 11 June 2015. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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10 Responses to Big Firm vs Small Firm: A Big Fuss Over A Small Itch

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  2. This article presents a new perspective.
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  3. "It is commonly said that those in big firms earn more but learn less (and vice versa for small firms)." – thanks for throwing more light on this. I used to believe in something along this line.

  4. Ranjan Paramalingam

    A law firm can be small but weighty and a big one featherlight. There are other criteria, which would not be readily known to those wanting to assess a law firm, for example, assets (including goodwill), liabilities, revenue, profits, the ratio of fee earners to support staff, growth prospects, and the strength of the firm's management. The seniority of a lawyer is not necessarily meaningful. Some young lawyers race ahead. Law practice has changed over the years, with some areas of practice drying up and new ones developing. Law firms need to adapt to the changes. Chinese customary marriage and divorce, the enterprise of Chettiars, and disputes over tin mines no longer bring in much legal work. Intellectual property law and information technology law have developed rapidly. A flowering of administrative law, still not apparent, would bring in money for some lawyers (and make a change of government easier). Celebrity (including Muslim) divorce looks

  5. Big firm run the many employes but small firm is the one or two person same situation in educational institute. Good research is the backbone for any thesis paper if you want to pass in flying colors. Therefore it is important for a student wanting to do a thesis paper to embark on doing extra research. Visiting different libraries where one is able to come in touch with various books would be of great help since one is able to peruse variety of books.

  6. I do agree with you that the corporate culture is even more important than the size of the firm. I'm going to pay for research paper to investigate this question in detail.

  7. nice. useful things to ponder