Working at a Smaller Firm

Working at a small law firmToday, we welcome back Shirlene Armstrong, guest writer and now rising second-year law student to share her experience working at a small law firm this summer.

In law school, your down time is dedicated to studying, living, and breathing the law. As such, law student’s summers are dedicated to the same. Thus, the summers between your 1L and 2L years and 2L and 3L years should be dedicated to some type of legal work. Normally, rising 2Ls land an internship with a judge, work in at a Prosecutor’s office, or have some other type of internship in the legal field. Some rising 3Ls land coveted “Summer Associate” positions and work as a young associate at a firm. Other 3Ls continue their positions at their old firms or jobs, take classes, work in a legal clinic, or do legal work in some other form. As a rising 2L, I was fortunate enough to land a paid position with a firm for the summer.

My Firm

When I say “smaller firm” I mean a local firm with only one office, compared to bigger firms that are headquartered in the city. I go to school in Detroit, so there are many law firms in the metro-Detroit area and most of them are bigger with several attorneys. I guess you could call them “BigLaw.” However, my firm has about 10 attorneys with 8 support staff (so I would say a moderately sized firm?) My firm focuses on Personal Injury law which includes PIP (personal injury protection) benefits, Michigan’s No-Fault law, Social Security, Premises accidents, and so much more. We handle the “Plaintiff’s side” so we are normally dealing with and filing lawsuits against insurance companies. However, we also go after negligence claims as well. (I know, Torts flashbacks). My firm is pretty much family-run with two brothers as the founding fathers of the firm with two of their children as partners, one child as support staff, and a wife as the head of support staff. However, there are plenty of people (like me) and attorneys who are not part of the family, but you still get that family-business vibe from the firm.

My Position

I am actually the only law student that works for this firm. (Shocking, right?) It’s true though, there are 10 attorneys but only 1 law student. However, there are two ladies who work directly with the attorneys as their legal assistants. I ended up landing an interview with this firm because my (now) supervising attorney and interviewer is friends with my Lexis boss (I also have a position as a Student Lexis Associate with LexisNexis at my school) and got me in contact. Note: the power of networking is truly amazing so make sure you are always growing your network. My position is called a “Law Clerk” but I am also referred to as a “Paralegal.” However, I basically do everything. Since I am the only law student, a lot of what I do is similar to what summer associates do at BigLaw firms. I handle almost all of the Discovery (composing, answering, drafting, etc) and beginning stages of a lawsuit, of course, with attorney review and guidance. I also meet with clients, call insurance companies, research weird situations, and juggle a million cases at once.

The Perks

Since the firm is smaller, and I am the only law student, there are a lot of perks. The main one is that I have learned more about being a lawyer and the law whilst working than I have (thus far) in law school. Also, I am given a lot of flexibility and freedom to work on assignments. I have to prioritize and strategize cases and assignments, just like the attorneys. Further, my opinion matters. Recently, there was a big decision from the Michigan Supreme Court in regards to the No-Fault law, and the attorneys were asking my thoughts and opinions on what the decision might mean for us. I also feel very valued at my firm. Everyone has taken the initiative to get to know me as a person, making me feel comfortable and supported. My supervising attorney acts like my brother sometimes which is very refreshing. The list of perks of a smaller firm go on and on but overall, you feel more recognized, supported, and comfortable.

The Cons

Although I love my firm and my position, there are some drawbacks to working at a smaller firm. Unlike BigLaw firms, we don’t have much of a breakroom or “goodies” that you might see. Also, arguably, you have more work because there are a limited number of people who work there. Although it is good to be recognized, if something goes wrong or you mess up or miss a deadline (fortunately this has not happened to me as of yet) then it will be very obvious who is to blame (you). However, I would say that the pros outweigh the cons of working at a smaller firm, and I would definitely encourage anyone who is interested in being at a smaller firm to look past the drawbacks.

Advice/Overall Thoughts

I am very thankful for the experience I have had thus far. I am a first generation lawyer, so a small firm was perfect for me to get accustomed to the legal profession in an environment where I felt comfortable asking questions. I feel like I am part of my own legal family and have gained great mentors as a result. Personally, a smaller firm is perfect for me (at least to start). However, smaller firms are not for everyone. People who are interested in BigLaw or Corporations or business law would much rather be in a big office in the middle of the city (And that is perfectly okay!!) Ultimately, you need to figure out what is best for you and stick with it!


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About Shirlene Armstrong

Shirlene Armstrong is a first-generation student in her last year at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, Michigan. At Wayne, Shirlene has been involved with numerous organizations and clubs, including mock trial, LexisNexis, the Women's Law Caucus, and the Journal of Law and Society. Shirlene enjoys mentoring others and sharing what she has learned on her legal journey and continues to work hard in accomplishing her dreams.

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