Are you a paralegal trying to decide on working at a solo vs large firm? Applying for your first or early-career legal positions may be a little daunting. A little research, introspection, and narrowing the field will assist in targeting your search.
Decide Where You Want to Work
People will float, fight, or navigate. This is true in all areas of life. In the legal field, floating along to get your foot in the door can result in you being somewhere you didn’t know you weren’t looking for. Floating means you aren’t intentional, and you stumble into an area of law, a type of law firm, or a specific position in a firm that may not be the best fit.
Fighting means you take a specific legal position because, well, you need a job, and once there, you wish it were something different. You’re left fighting against the current methods of the firm or with your position in the firm, which can leave you with an unhappy experience.
Why not navigate those choices to land where best fits your personality, work style, energy level, and desired compensation?
Solo vs Large Firm
If you are new, you may not understand the pros and cons of working for a solo practitioner or smaller firm versus a large (or gargantuan) law practice. Below are the pros and cons to consider:
- Often lacks extra support staff
- You will likely be required to perform multiple functions
- Will likely have greater levels of responsibility
- Can lack benefits packages or benefits may be limited
- Greater opportunities for remote work
- Greater opportunities for larger bonuses
- Can lack the compensation of larger firms
- Chief cook and bottle washer – literally
- More relaxed in overall policies and procedures
- Lack of peers
- Often more support staff
- A little more glitz
- More compartmentalized
- Often better benefits packages
- Compensation generally higher
- Not as highly bonused
- Some provide formal law firm staff training
- More room for upward movement
- More personalities to learn
- Greater opportunities for peer relationships
Before we step into the differences in compensation, it is helpful to evaluate the differences between a small or solo firm versus a large firm. Smaller does not mean a practice that is not high-powered and busy. Depending upon the area of practice, small or solo firms can run at breakneck speed.
A larger firm handles volume, but in general, a larger firm will offer greater levels of support. That may come in the form of legal secretaries, runners, file clerks, copy people, or even assistants whose job it is to schedule, docket, or do document management.
One downside of a larger firm is your potential limitation to a specific area or set of tasks. In litigation, for example, in a large firm, as a litigation paralegal, you may perform only discovery tasks whereas, in a small firm, you may be handling case intakes, case management, writing demands, filing lawsuits, performing discovery, legal research, motion practice, and trial practice. You may be happy in a setting where you perform specific tasks but that is a good thing to know when interviewing.
In this pro/con scenario, the chief cook and bottle washer thing of a smaller firm is literal. In a smaller setting, you may feel like you handle everything, and that can even include some of the accounting chores (and a little trash removal – seriously!).
Whichever you prefer, when interviewing, ask questions about the responsibilities of the position and if there is room to learn new skills or tasks that will assist you in becoming a more well-rounded paralegal. Beware of firms that run like mills and have a track record of spitting people out through a revolving door. Make a few phone calls, call a few connections, join your local paralegal associations and national associations like NALA or NFPA. Networking is crucial and will steer you to firms, big or small, that have good reputations for compensation, mentoring, and upward movement.
I’ve worked in both settings. Moving out to a more suburban area resulted in a $15,000 a year cut in pay many years ago (many), but I was close to home, which meant little to no commute time, and I regained 2 hours a day of my life. That was more time for kids, laundry, cooking… (hmm…Is this a good thing?) Before my daughter was born, I used the commute time to decompress, but after becoming a Mom, I was not interested in late-night, 1:00 a.m. run-throughs of opening statements, last-minute changes to trial schedules, and making sure my people were going to show up at the courthouse the following day.
Circumstances change. Make sure the position fits the needs of your current circumstances. For me, larger firms created friendships and peer relationships, while the smaller firms allowed me to stretch myself. Be introspective.
Ask yourself a few questions.
- What is your highest priority?
- Are you high-energy?
- Do you enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city and being close to the action?
- Or do you prefer close-to-home, no-traffic drama and being out of the midst of the major law firms and courts?
That will dictate the “where.” The “who” is a little trickier because small firms can be extremely busy, insane in fact, with evening runs downtown to drop notebooks for a big mediation and little additional staff to support your needs.
I hear about the low incoming wages for new legal assistants, and yes, someone at Chick-Fil-A might indeed make a larger hourly wage than a new, incoming paralegal. No disrespect to Chick-Fil-A, but do you really want to serve crispy chicken sandwiches all day? You have chosen a profession presumably because you enjoy the law and want to contribute at the highest level. Starting incomes may not reflect that, but that is not the end of the story. Incomes rise as experience grows.
The new Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics will be released on March 31, 2022. Looking back to 2020 information, the mean hourly wages for Paralegals and Legal Assistants was $27.22 per hour, with a mean annual wage of $56,610. States with the highest employment levels were Florida, California, Texas, New York, and Illinois, with annual wages ranging from $52,100 to $60,390. Cities such as San Francisco have an annual mean wage of $75,820, whereas Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale comes in low at $54,040 annual mean wage.
The top-paying industries that utilize paralegals and legal assistants are merchant wholesalers or in nondurable goods, where an annual mean wage could be as high as $134,210, followed by investment pools and funds at $76,560, to the management of companies and enterprises.
Federal jobs don’t lag too far behind. These numbers exclude all legal secretaries and administrative assistants. When you dig a little further into the statistics, the metropolitan area with the highest annual mean wage was Napa, CA, where hourly rates run $44.76, while the nonmetropolitan area with the highest employment of paralegals and legal assistants was the Kansas nonmetro area with an hourly wage of $15.03. See Paralegals and Legal Assistants (bls.gov).
Perhaps the statistics will steer you into an area of law because of the higher pay. If that is not your driving factor, look for a firm that fits your personality, mission, and drive. That will serve you best in the end.
Meet the Author
Laurie Fields is a transplanted Midwesterner from Indiana to the Arizona desert in 1972. She began her career in 1977 in a quasi-legal secretarial/paralegal position as “paraprofessionals” weren’t quite yet a thing. Laurie has an Associate’s Degree in Legal Assisting and Coaching Certifications and was attending Arizona State when her daughter came along. She worked in larger firms in the downtown Phoenix area for past Presidents of the American Trial Lawyer’s Association, specializing in tort law. Her areas of expertise included multi-district litigation, such as the Dalkon Shield, L-Tryptophan, and Breast Implant cases, as well as in construction law. She moved into the medical malpractice arena, where she loved the marriage of medicine and law and continues as a contract paralegal for a sole practitioner. When not working or coaching, she loves to travel, riding Harleys with her husband of 38 years, and spending time with her daughter, who is in vet school. Her motto is a quote from Mario Andretti – “If you wait, all that happens is you get older.”