Environment – Choosing Size & Location of Law Firm

by Syamsuriatina Ishak

 

In choosing an appropriate working environment for when you commence practice, apart from specialization, there is also the consideration of the size and location of the law firm you intend to join.

Should you join a large firm, medium or small one? Should you rush to Klang Valley to work, or would it be preferable to stay in a smaller town? What is the best option for a new lawyer like you?

I have worked in a large law firm, a middle size firm, a small firm and as a sole proprietor, so I can certainly tell you that there is no one right answer to that question, because there are advantages and disadvantages to the different sizes and make ups of a different working environment.

Yet again, in choosing size of firm, you main consideration should be what your inclinations and goals are. You will need to consider which law firm best fits that purpose.

There are also some additional factors to be taken into consideration in making that decision, as explained below.


LARGE LAW FIRMS

In a large law firm (a firm consisting of 50 lawyers and above), because of the need to employ a more careful system of human resource and risk management, there would usually be:

  • A more structured hierarchical system for dealing with cases, eg. Lawyers work within departments, within specific areas of specialisations, and within teams, with a very clear ‘chain of command’ – partners at the top of the pyramid, senior lawyers below them (10-15 years in practice), middle-level lawyers (5-10 years in practice), junior lawyers (1-4 years in practice), followed by pupils and interns or attachment students at the very bottom;
  • A good support systems; eg. secretary for each lawyer or pool of clerks to serve a team of lawyers, including a good accounting system (your disbursement claims are quickly processed, yay!) and HR management system;
  • An established and clear file management and diary management system, ensuring there is no cause for conflict or clash of lawyers’ free dates;
  • Because it is a large firm, the firm is able to pool resources and provide for better facilities to ensure work is able to get done efficiently – a large and well-stocked library, subscription to all the online law resources and periodicals, better computer systems and office equipment;
  • Because the firm is large (for each lawyer, there are usually 3-4 times as many support staff), there is a sense of community within the firm, and the firm is able to organize large social events, like Annual Dinners, Christmas and Raya parties, annual staff holidays, sports carnivales;
  • Has clear guidelines on hiring and firing, bonuses and annual increments;

Due to the sheer magnitude of taking care of a sizable team, working in a large law firm usually means that a new lawyer can set a clear career path for themselves, knowing what to expect in two years, five years, and ten years, provided they perform satisfactorily within the firm and on their work. And, because the firm is large, there is better job security (it is not likely that the firm will “bungkus” anytime soon).  The large law firm, in general, has goodwill and reputation to protect, and therefore, usually has a ‘brand’ name to protect. 

You may find if you leave private practice, in applying for work as a legal adviser at a large corporation, listing a large and reputable law firm within one’s resume and curriculum vitae is generally regarded as a positive, since a large corporation would favour someone who comes from a large corporate background.

It must also be considered that due to the huge divisions of work within a large law firm, it is very likely that you will end up being compartmentalized into a specific department, and working under a specific team of bosses and colleagues. This is all fine and dandy if you have decided to specialize your practice very early on, but if you are hoping to try various areas of practice because you want to see which type of legal work best suits you personally (as explained in the earlier post Career in Law – Which Specialisation?), then working in a large law firm within a specific and limited area of practice might not be a good idea. 


SMALL LAW FIRM

In the reverse, a small law firm (a firm consisting of between 2-9 lawyers) will have a less structured system, and sometimes smaller resources (smaller library, less office equipment, smaller support staff pool).  Whether or not the firm rewards bonuses and annual increments, or organizes staff social events depends very much on the management style of that particular firm.

Unlike their peers working in a large firm, a new lawyer starting out in a small law firm would find that they are exposed to different types of practices and areas of law, because small firms usually do a bit of everything, whatever their clients dictate, and they do not have separate departments to handle each type of work. In any one week, a lawyer in a small firm may do a mix of civil litigation, drafting agreements and helping out on conveyancing portfolios. This would come in useful for those of you hoping to cultivate a well-balanced practice, especially if you are aiming to open up a general services firm of your own one day.


What of your professional skills?

Working within a large law firm, with its clear hierarchies and management systems, means that you inculcate good file management habits (since you have to do it day in day out), and this certainly helps if you wish to open up your own firm one day, or work within another firm. And because of the systematic way a more junior lawyer is trained i.e. by following the example of, and guidance of a more senior lawyer, a lawyer who starts off in a large law firm has a structured skill set. Most large law firms have clear seniority-file-handling guidelines (always ensuring client’s satisfaction for their humungous billings) ensuring that cases are only led by very senior lawyers, with junior lawyers only doing the ‘grunt’ or assisting work. 

Accordingly, one of the drawbacks of working within a large law firm is that due to the sheer size and established hierarchy system, a new lawyer’s development can be much slower in comparison with his/her peer working in a smaller law firm. Because of diary and file management within a smaller pool of lawyers, a junior lawyer in a small law firm may find him/herself being thrust into more complicated cases more often than a peer in a larger firm. In a smaller law firm, a lawyer in his second year of practice, may be conducting his own trial and hearings, whereas this would almost be unheard of in a large law firm.

This can be really good or can be really bad for a young lawyer’s career development, depending on the amount of guidance provided to said young lawyer. If a measure of guidance is provided by someone of more experience, the young lawyer exposed to handling cases early in their career would obviously gain experience faster than a peer in a firm in which a young lawyer has to wait his turn, maybe 5-6 years, before he is given his first bite at handling his own trial. Provided that young lawyer is given sufficient and good advise from someone with more experience, there is nothing to prevent a bright young spark from handling a case or client’s file to their satisfaction.

It must be said that without such guidance, a young lawyer may instead develop bad habits and practice styles which may be detrimental to their clients’ welfare and that young lawyer’s personal growth – habits that are impossible to break if they become engrained in that young lawyer’s practice style.

Now, I must also clarify that I am not suggesting that complicated cases should be easily thrown towards juniors who have no concept of how to handle a case. That would be negligent of a firm and lawyers. What I mean is that a junior lawyer should be eased into doing more and more challenging tasks as they develop in experience and ability.

In litigation, this may mean allowing a junior lawyer to handle the examination of a less contentious witness, or in a legal drafting, allowing them to try drafting an agreement which has been done before and for which a senior lawyer has a tried-and-tested template ready to replace the draft if it’s not up to scratch. This, IMHO, is preferable to having a lawyer of 8 years experience, having had little or no trial experience, eventually open up a law firm (based on their ‘seniority’) and handling their own cases, without having had any actual court trial experience due to their being ‘lower down’ on a large firms’ hierarchy.

 

What about location?

You must remember that a city area or larger towns of each state will usually have a larger concentration of businesses and commercial offices. To meet the needs of these businesses, it is natural that a law firm situates their offices in these larger commercial area. And so, if you, are searching for a medium to large law firm to work at, you would usually find these firms in these locations. Very large firms will be concentrated in the Klang Valley, which is the business hub of Malaysia.  Smaller towns will be home to smaller firms.

That is not to say that you cannot find challenging work from firms in smaller towns. Many small firms in smaller towns have successful practices in areas of criminal law and specializations in road traffic accident cases. They also handle many corporate advisory and civil litigation cases for smaller businesses and individuals who reside in these areas.

Also note that in a small town, there is less competition, and a more pleasant working environment amongst lawyers and other businesses, whereas legal practice in larger towns, particularly in Kuala Lumpur, can be very hectic and rushed. As a lawyer practicing litigation mostly in the Klang Valley, I can say that I personally revel in the occasions when I handle cases ‘outstation’, because of the environment there are more relaxed and friendly. I need only look at my peers working in smaller towns to realize what a stress-free life they enjoy (less grey hairs and more smiles!), having more time with their families, and being treated with more respect in the community where lawyers aren’t a dime a dozen!


 

So, which location and firm size should I choose, Tina? You ask.

I say go back to the question you asked yourself earlier. What are your inclinations and goals?

If you are interested in cultivating a smaller practice for yourself, and/or originate from a smaller town, preferring to stay close to your family, then starting out your practice in a small town may suit you. If you want to work in a supersized firm, then you’ll need to head to Klang Valley.

Since there are also many ranges of firms between very large and very small, I would suggest the new unsure lawyer chooses to work for a firm which lies somewhere in between these two extreme options. A medium sized law firm (between 10-49 lawyers) – one large enough to have the resources such as comfortable offices, sufficiently equipped library, good office equipment and a client file management system, but not too large that you and your talent get mired in the complicated hierarchy system – would be the perfect choice for someone who is unsure where to start.

In considering where to work, it is also important to see what working environment suits you best. People who prefer a quiet work environment, who detest having to contend with hustle and bustle (and the inevitable large office politics), may prefer working in a small office, whereas some personalities prefer a gregarious working environment, where there are social events and colleagues to exchange ideas with, would definitely find their heart set on a large firm.

You may also want to consider your personal circumstances. Do you have your own transportation (or would you require to work in a firm with offices nearing a network of public transport), do you have family considerations that limit your working distance, etc.

The most important thing is you start off in a firm that caters to your goals and aspirations, in that a firm does not detract from your further career plans while suiting with your personal circumstances.


 

NEXT: Mastering the Lingo

 

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