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7 tips for choosing the right law firm

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator
If you choose to work in a law firm, then your next decision – which law firm to apply for – can fast become a vexing one.

If you choose to work in a law firm, then your next decision – which law firm to apply for – can fast become a vexing one. Even if you have a strong sense of where you’d like to work, it pays to ensure your decision is a carefully considered one. After all, a law degree isn’t easy to get – why shouldn’t you reward yourself with the best possible start to your career? 

To help you make the best choice, we’ve compiled seven questions every law graduate should be able to answer when considering a prospective law firm.

How large is the firm?

Law firms range in size from tiny boutique outfits that tend to specialise in niche areas of the law, to global giants like Clifford Chance, which employs around 3,500 lawyers across more than 20 countries.

There are pros and cons to working in firms at either end of the spectrum. While some may be drawn to the scale, stability and career advancement opportunities offered by medium and large firms, others will prefer smaller practices in which they can focus on specific topics of interest, develop close client relationships and potentially enjoy a more close-knit culture. 

Of course, there are few merits that are reliably exclusive to firms of any size, so the scale of any specific firm should be considered only insofar as it might impact on your career satisfaction and advancement.

Will you be working in a practice area that interests you?

As you’ve seen in the first section of this guide, there are many legal practice areas in which you could choose to specialise. If you have a strong sense of which of these interests you most, then it’s worth seeking out firms that will cultivate your passion. 

So if you find taxation law too dry, consider family law; if you find family law too draining, consider criminal law; if you find criminal law too confronting, consider something else, and so on and so forth, until a practice area comes along that excites you. Look for a firm where you can focus on that. 

Bear in mind, it can be difficult to switch practice areas once you commit to one. It’s also important to consider whether or not your personality fits with your desired practice area. 

What’s the culture of the firm like? 

The importance of culture in a law firm cannot be overstated. After all, there are few other environments in which you’ll work as intensely or closely with other groups of people, so it pays to ensure you fit in and feel supported. 

To properly evaluate the culture of a law firm, you’ll need to ask a variety of questions: How competitive is the law firm? What sort of people work there? What is expected of graduate employees? What are the people like? How many hours a week will I work?

Law firms and even individual teams within firms also vary widely in their value systems. Some may value individualism, conspicuous effort or billable hours; others may value employee and client satisfaction, work/life balance or community engagement. Where possible, try to secure a position in a firm whose values are consistent with yours. 

Will working at this firm help you in your career? 

On average, people change jobs 11–12 times during their careers. So it pays to consider where you want to be, not just for the next few years but in a decade or so. If you have a strong sense of your career goals, then you should ensure the firm you’re interested in will help you meet them. 

This might mean checking you’ll learn the right skills, focus on the right issues, gain the right experience or network with the right people. Some firms have established professional development initiatives, especially those with structured graduate programs. Just be certain that your career will grow at the target firm and not, instead, be restricted. 

Does the firm have an international presence?

For law graduates excited by the prospect of working abroad or focusing on international cases, it could be worth prioritising firms that have a global presence. It can be much easier to find employment overseas if internal transfers are available, and international firms often leverage their global presence to address legal issues that span multiple jurisdictions. 

On the other hand, if you’d prefer to work in a single location or focus on domestic issues, you may wish to avoid international firms in which overseas postings or training programs are considered a natural part of your career progression.

Will you have a healthy work/life balance?

According to a survey supported by the Law Society of New South Wales, 46.9 per cent of law students, 55.7 per cent of solicitors and 52.5 per cent of barristers reported they had experienced depression*. Additionally, burnout is a growing concern within the profession, with some harried lawyers accessing the services of firms dedicated to helping legal practitioners transition into other careers. Overwhelmingly, one of the reasons provided as explanation in both cases, is the difficulty lawyers often face when trying to establish a healthy work/life balance. 

You will have your own sense of what a healthy work/life balance looks like – some people may derive satisfaction from working late to prepare complex cases; others may prefer more regular hours with ample time for personal commitments. In either case, it’s important to check that your idea of a healthy work/life balance is achievable at a target law firm.

Who are the clients?

If you work at a big firm, you might find yourself managing relationships with the legal representatives of equally large organisations. If you work at a small law firm, you may work more closely with individuals on private matters. If you work in-house, then your ‘client’ will effectively be the organisation that employs you. In any of the other numerous legal settings you may find yourself in, your client might be the government, a criminal defendant, a parent going through custody proceedings, a person seeking personal injury compensation, a nation state defending its actions at an international trade tribunal, or something else entirely. 

The possibilities are endless, so consider who you would find it gratifying to work for – will the firm you’re investigating be able to connect you with that type of client?

Other things to consider

It pays to consider your academic background. If you’ve completed an undergraduate degree or alternative qualification in an area other than law, this may make you more employable in specific areas. For example, if you studied commerce alongside law, you may find it advantageous to pursue a career at a commercial law firm. 

You should also take into account your interests outside of law and explore the possibility of using them to create a more satisfying career. If you’re passionate about music, you may seek out a firm that specialises in intellectual property or represents clients in the entertainment industry. 

Further questions to assist your decision making: 

  • Where is the firm located? 
  • Will the firm meet your salary expectation? 
  • Will you have any autonomy, and if so, how much?
  • Will you receive a variety of interesting work?
  • Will you have the opportunity for rotation into different practice areas?
  • Will you be required to work very long hours without a clear link to performance and pay?
  • Are there opportunities for professional development, including training, education (such as funding for further study) and mentoring?
  • What is the professional reputation of the person you will be reporting to?

How to find answers

If you are interested in working for a particular firm, it’s helpful to speak with current employees about their individual experiences. One way to do this is by approaching representatives of your target firm at careers fairs. Alternatively, recruitment agents and other contacts and friends who have worked at the firm can provide honest and valuable information about its culture, reputation and working environment. You can also refer to the graduate job reviews and On the Job profiles on the GradAustralia website.

Researching online can be a helpful way to find answers to your questions, although you should, of course, endeavour to base your opinions on reputable sources. You can also seek out the advice of lecturers, tutors, careers counsellors and members of the legal profession. Finally, there’s no better time to ask clarifying questions than during a job interview. 

By doing your research and deciding carefully on a law firm that fits your values, goals and expectations, you can be confident in your choice and get your career off to a satisfying start.

* From ’Courting the Blues: attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and legal practitioners’, conducted by the Brain & Mind Research Institute of the University of Sydney in 2009.