Large law firms v small law firms

February 1st, 2018

By Emmie de Kock

If you are looking for a romantic partner, you usually have a list of criteria with the qualities you want the person to have. Such a checklist is automatically based on the knowledge you have of yourself, your past experiences and what your interests and needs are. Screening for work or romantic interests is, of course, very different and the job interview process can, on some level, be compared to speed dating. In this regard, the employer usually has a checklist of qualities by which a prospective employee would be scrutinised for an available position. The interview is a focused discussion to try to get to know the personality and intentions of the candidate.

However, very few entry level candidates consider what their own preferences or criteria regarding a work environment are. Like many first-time daters, entry level candidates may feel desperate for any job to start their careers, in which they can earn some money and get work experience. An aspect that impacts a work environment, is the size of the firm. Candidate attorneys (CAs) may think that articles are scarce and they will be happy to find a job at any size firm, but they should be aware of the different traits of law firms, depending on their size. The reason for this is that a job relationship is usually intended to be a long-term decision. Do you know whether you would prefer to work in a large, medium, or small law firm?

There are different positives and negatives following the decision to join a large, medium or small law firm. Below are merely general comments and observations relating to different size law firms.

Large law firms

Large law firms are generally associated with higher salaries. However, in return for a higher salary, management will expect higher targets to be made.

Large law firms usually also have existing clients and large volumes of work, which result in writing higher fees. Marketing in a large law firm is often done by a practice manager (or marketing manager) and attorneys only get to do what they are hired for, namely, to serve clients and write fees for professional services.

If you perform in a large law firm, you are likely to enjoy a good salary and secure employment. However, moving up the corporate ladder in a large law firm can be challenging, due to a great deal of competition. It is generally only when you start moving up in a large law firm, that attorneys are expected to start participating in management activities and getting involved in training junior staff and secretaries.

Other positives of a large law firm, include a good and secure infrastructure, an IT management system and established processes.

Large law firms are further often divided into specialist groups or departments. These departments may form ‘small firms’ within the large law firm, and compete with other ‘small firms’ in the large law firm. This may set, as well as challenge, inter-personal relationships and social structures at work. Generally, there can be a social division between attorneys, secretaries and support staff. Secretaries will generally also aim to work for the most senior attorneys who can give input on their salaries. Junior attorneys may (if they are lucky) get to work with more senior secretaries. These work and status divisions are usually considered the mix for office politics. It is sometimes best to accept that you will not please everyone, or be supported by everyone at the office while working at a large law firm. Despite attempts to lay low from office politics, you are likely to have some associations in the firm that you will have to be aware of and will undoubtedly have to manage.

Notwithstanding possible social and cultural challenges in a large law firm, the division of expert services in the firm, or department, usually helps make the large law firms more efficient and profitable. The big negative of these separation of services or groups is that some attorneys, especially CAs or very junior attorneys, only develop and learn a single area of the practice of the firm as a whole. They become resources, which can only be applied in a single area of the law practice. This could eventually lead to boredom, which may lead to frustration. If such a qualified attorney then decides to leave the large law firm for a smaller or different firm, they may often find themselves a bit out of their depth and in need of further training to be a profitable and a more diverse attorney.

Small law firms

An aspect that often attracts candidates to smaller law firms is that in a small law firm, a CA or junior attorney is more likely to get exposure to different types of matters and clients. In this regard, on a personal level, attorneys often build better confidence in a small law firm and have greater moral support at the office. This generally makes small law firms cozy work environments.

In a small law firm, management is generally more accessible and decisions can be made and executed faster.

In a small law firm, if you work hard and perform well, there may also be opportunities to be promoted faster. However, if it is a growing firm, all attorneys in the office are likely to be expected to assist with marketing. With less support staff and office functions, all attorneys in a small law firm are also likely to be expected to assist with some administrative and management tasks. A small law firm is still growing and may experience some growing pains relating to IT systems and changes in general infrastructure.

Staff turnover in a smaller law firm also has a big impact on the firm as a whole. In this regard, depending on how small the boat is, if any one person steps off, it may take a while to get the balance right again, especially relating to work division. However, if the captain decides to step off, the boat may need to be evacuated or handed over. In this regard, if you are working for a sole proprietor, to consider possible risks, it would be best you inquire about succession plans.

It is not accurate to state that all small law firms pay low salaries, as some small law firms pay competitive or even higher salaries than some larger law firms in order to retain talent and value their attorneys.

Middle-sized law firms

A middle-sized law firm is likely to have most of the positives and negatives raised above, but likely less extremely. Middle-sized law firms, which lean more towards the culture and values of small law firms, can be a very supportive work environment.


If you are considering applying for a job in a law firm, it may be good to take note of the positives and negatives of large, medium and small law firms. As an attorney you will spend many hours at work and work will be a big part of your life, as will the people who surround you at the office. As you grow into a more senior position, you will continue to learn about yourself, and you will grow and change. Different work environments may suit you better at different phases in your career. Do you know which work environment best serves you in your current career phase?

Emmie de Kock BLC LLB (cum laude) (UP) is a coach and attorney at Emmie de Kock Coaching and Consulting in Centurion.

 This article was first published in De Rebus in 2018 (Jan/Feb) DR 20.