Small firms, big opportunities: Prepare now for hiring increase on the horizon

In the legal profession, more than 80 percent of all private practitioners work in law firms of 50 or fewer attorneys, and only 10 percent work in firms of more than 100 lawyers. Hiring at small (two-10 attorneys) and mid-sized (11-25 attorneys) firms accounted for 41.1 percent of the law firm jobs accepted nationally by the Class of 2009. More than 50 percent of 2009 KU Law grads who accepted jobs in private practice went to work for a small or mid-sized firm.

The small and mid-sized firms that employ so many lawyers tend not to recruit law clerks and associates through on-campus interviews. Indeed, over the past decade, national employment surveys reveal that only about 25 percent of graduating 3Ls reported permanent employment as the result of an on-campus interview. For the class of 2009, the national figure was 24.7 percent, and the KU Law figure was 24.6 percent.

Many more students find jobs through networking, referrals, responding to job postings and sending targeted mailings. More than 60 percent of the KU Law Class of 2009 traced its permanent employment to one of these activities.

Each summer, Karen and I visit with attorneys who work for employers who do not interview on campus, most typically small law firms. The majority of attorneys with whom I’ve spoken this summer have reported an uptick in business over the last several months and a belief that the worst of the recession may be over.

The time is ripe for law students to prepare for the increase in hiring that could potentially be on the horizon. At each of my summer meetings with attorneys, I’ve asked for advice and suggestions for law students seeking summer or permanent employment.

Ian Bartalos of Harris McCausland PC in Kansas City revealed that his firm’s most recent hire got the job because of his persistence and tact. Harris McCausland had not advertised an interest in receiving applications, but the student got in touch by a well-written letter and followed up with two phone calls over a period of several weeks. The student performed well in the interview and had sparkling references. After the interview, the student sent the firm a thank-you note.

Good trial attorneys tenaciously pursue the facts. Job candidates who aggressively, but tactfully, pursue an opening will be willing as attorneys to doggedly track down a witness or comprehensively question a deponent to prepare for trial.

Matt Merrill of Brown & Ruprechet in Kansas City mentioned when applying to law firms, students should understand that resumes and cover letters matter. Misspellings, grammatical errors and mail merge mistakes will absolutely sink an application. Attention to detail is an important trait in successful job seekers and attorneys alike.

Jeff Peier of Klenda Mitchell Austerman in Wichita stated that smaller firms are often seeking utility players who can practice in many different areas. Students should consider enrolling in a variety of classes and artfully describing their diverse skill set in both a cover letter and interview.

Jeff recommended taking full advantage of opportunities to practice interviewing skills. In a smaller firm, the ability to communicate with clients and supervising attorneys is critical, and firms will evaluate a candidate’s confidence, poise and ability to communicate clearly in an interview.

Todd Rogers, Assistant Dean for Career Services