6 minute read

Big Firms vs. Small Firms

Smaller Firm, Smaller Budget

In contrast, small firms must carefully handpick their candidates before bringing them in. The reason for this is simple—smaller firms do not have the resources necessary to bring in many people to interview. Callback interviews are expensive and time consuming. As a result, small firms screen their candidates very carefully prior to bringing them in. Additionally, students often must travel to the interviews at small firms on their own dime. They are also less likely to be taken out for a nice free lunch.

At some small firms, you may go through three to four rounds of interviews and end up meeting every attorney in the firm. These firms employ a thorough evaluation process because they view personality fit as crucial. Meanwhile, at other small firms, you may not even have a callback; you may receive an offer after an on-campus or phone interview, or—if you are really lucky—one solely based on your resume.

After receiving an offer from a small firm, consider asking for an opportunity to visit the firm again to help you make a more informed decision. Additionally, never accept on the spot or you will forego an opportunity to negotiate. Unlike big firms, small firms are more flexible when it comes to negotiating such things as moving expenses, compensation, bonuses, and vacation time. Ask for what is reasonable, and be prepared to go through several rounds of negotiations before settling on the final package. And, of course, review Chapter 29 to help you prepare.

Things not to do when interviewing at small firms

Lawyers in small firms are more cautious and conservative when it comes to hiring. They handpick candidates who can easily adapt to various settings, who are confident, and who have great personalities. They will not risk hiring a candidate who may not fit in well, who is not confident enough to handle added responsibility, or who is not absolutely certain he or she wants to practice the type of law the firm practices.

Small firms expect their candidates to be professional and very well-prepared. This means wearing a conservative dark suit; having extra copies of your resume, transcripts, and writing samples handy; listening without interrupting; and acting friendly (but not too casual). Small firms also usually care less about school rankings and credentials than larger firms do, and they may give a stronger preference to candidates who can emphasize relevant experience. Additionally, candidates who are humble and personable are more likely to get offers than those who brag about going to top-tier schools or being on the law review. Because personality and relevant experience are the key to acing small-firm interviews, put your best foot forward. Be professional without appearing too formal or dry. To minimize the risk of appearing arrogant, let your resume speak for itself when it comes to achievements, but proactively discuss relevant work projects. Focus on interests, hobbies, and your passion for the type law the firm practices.

Interviewers at small firms expect formal, mailed thank-you letters. A hand-written note at the bottom of a typed thank-you letter is a welcome touch, provided you have good penmanship. This may be the one thing that will help convince the partners to choose you over other qualified candidates.

Finally, during small-firm interviews, do not discuss big firms, large corporate clients, huge class action settlements, or your hopes of doing large-scale defense work or practicing international law. Small firms can be sensitive about the fact that they are small. Even when they tell you with pride that they refused to grow through mergers in order to preserve their unique culture, they do not want an indication that you have big-firm envy.

Things not to do when interviewing at large firms

You don't have to worry as much about formalities when interviewing with large firms. Once you land a callback, your chances of getting an offer from a big firm are fairly good. Some Big Law recruiters estimate that they make offers to 50 to 75 percent of the candidates invited for callbacks. And for firms that engage in more careful screening process, this percentage is even higher. Still, there are plenty of ways to screw up a Big Law interview.

During her lunch interview, Carrie—apparently feeling a touch overconfident that she'd already clinched an offer—told the interviewer about her prior summer associate experience. The attorneys routinely took her out to lunches in an effort to get to know her—two-hour lunches that usually included appetizers and desserts and made her sleepy. So, she revealed to her interviewer, she used to shut her office door and take afternoon naps. Not something you want to say to a person who is thinking about hiring you!

We mentioned before that large firms hire in bulk. As a result of this, you do not need to worry as much about writing a detailed thank-you letter. With large firms, it is actually better to send it via e-mail to ensure it gets there on time. To maintain the appearance of formality, you can include the requisite introduction, body, and conclusion paragraphs, with your first and last name at the bottom. You may also send it as an email attachment, which means you are following proper formalities while also ensuring speedy delivery. E-mail is probably best, and one or two professional-sounding sentences are sufficient. Write it as soon as possible after the interview.

With big firms, you may often get an offer before you have a chance to write your thank-you letter. Some large firms believe that giving an offer on the spot will increase the likelihood that you will accept. They may even put a nice spin on it by saying something along these lines: “Although we typically wait until Friday to meet with the hiring committee to discuss all of our candidates, everyone was so impressed with you that we decided there was no point in waiting.” If this happens to you, congratulations! But do not feel too flattered. Most of the time, this is just a hedging strategy designed to increase acceptance rates. Do not feel pressured or obligated to accept an offer without taking the opportunity to look around first. The offer will still be there after you have had a chance to interview with other employers.

The differences between interviewing with big firms and small firms are telling. Large firms are corporate institutions, where constant recruiting and attrition are the cost of doing business. They expect a certain number of attorneys to pass through the firm and leave. On the other hand, although small firms are not immune to attrition, depending on their size and culture, they may feel that your addition to the firm will have a lasting impact on their work environment. Keep this in mind as you approach your interviews.


  • • Be especially mindful of the interviewing budget when dealing with smaller firms.
  • • Big firms interview in bulk and follow a standard, step-by-step interviewing process.
  • • With small firms, expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
  • • Be conservative and personable when interviewing at small firms.
  • • Do not engage in “big-firm talk” while interviewing at small firms.
  • • Thank-you letters are a must for small firms. The ideal thank-you letter for a small firm is a formal typed letter with a handwritten note at the bottom.
  • • The ideal thank-you letter for a large firm is a formal e-mail or an e-mail sent as an attachment, sent as soon as possible after the interview.
  • • Never accept an offer on the spot.

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLaw Job InterviewsBig Firms vs. Small Firms - Major Differences, Big Firm, Big Budget, Smaller Firm, Smaller Budget