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 Elizabeth  Werner

 By: ELIZABETH WERNER – Guest Blogger
(Part I of a II Part Series)
Introduction by Jamie Collins

Admittedly, this analysis of big firm versus small firm is a bit like the beloved tale of The City Mouse and the Country Mouse, for those who have read that ever popular children’s classic. What is right for one person may not be right for another. There is not really a right or wrong answer with regard to firm size, generally speaking.  It is an individual choice and matter of a personal preference for each individual working in the legal realm to decide which firm size is ideally suited for him or her.

This topic raises an important, fundamental question.  Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? Maybe you aren’t sure. Heck, you aren’t Nemo. How are you supposed to know what’s right for you until you’ve actually swum in both ponds? Good point. If you aren’t sure what’s right for you or you’re curious about what the other pond may have to offer, we’re running this series regarding firm size just for you! 

Elizabeth provides us with a candid look inside a big firm lifestyle and all that it has to offer you, as a paralegal. Without further adieu, here’s what you need to know about the big firm experience.

Small Fish, Big Pond. My name is Elizabeth Werner.  I’m the “big firm” paralegal in this story.  I’ve worked at a huge law firm, at a midsize firm that had the feel of a big firm and at a boutique firm with less than 15 attorneys.  In terms of numbers, I’ve spent over 7 years of my career working at big firms, so I can tell you that there are a lot of great aspects to the “small fish in a big pond” scenario. 

Point 1:  Amenities & Resources.  First off, there are amenities and office resource to consider.  When I started off as a paralegal, I was at a very large firm with 500+ attorneys and over 200 attorneys in the litigation group where I worked.  When I say “big” firm….I mean this firm had its own campus, corporate law was in a very large building and litigation had a separate building as well.  There were other buildings that housed the IT department, and accounting department, along with additional space for storage. 

I had my own office, which I loved.  There were pods or kiosks with kitchens, several printers and copiers and lots of offices supplies.  They even had milk for coffee and an array of frosty cold beverages. There were cafeterias (yes, cafeterias – plural) in several buildings (yes, buildings plural – are you getting the picture, here?) and as an added bonus, you could get free dinners if you could supply a client matter number to justify working late and needing to eat in the office. 

Everything I needed was in arm’s reach, including an internal copy center managed by Pitney Bowes.  I had a courier center to prepare all my shipments for FedEx, drive my filings to the Court (before ECF existed or for confidential filings that needed to be presented in hard copy).  This firm also had a word processing center to work on documents for you/for the attorneys to alleviate some of the work load.  I rarely asked for supplies in the pods to be refilled, I don’t recall needing to wait for a copier to be fixed, a printed to be reloaded with a new cartridge or a special supply to be ordered for an extraordinary circumstance or special request.  Because this was my first experience, I often took for granted the value of having entire departments available to assist at a moment’s notice.  I now see the light. 

I believe resources and supplies are so readily available in a large firm because employing that many people, engaging very large clients and working with such large litigation teams, you need structure. 

Point 2:  The Firm Dynamic.  The wheels are turning day and night and there needs to be structure and a strict set of rules and codes in place to make the firm run successfully.  The teams were tiered, from senior counsel positions through the support staff.  Paralegals were placed in 4 levels, based upon experience.  This allowed the attorneys and staff to estimate what you could do for your team. 

Point 3: The Learning Experience.  I started as a Paralegal II (Paralegal I having little experience, and IV being most senior with years of experience).  I joined a group and had a fantastic senior paralegal to mentor and guide me through the litigation process.  Because there was a strict foundation and methodology, every paralegal was taught how to prepare documents for production in a uniform fashion, how to organize documents, how to label files, how to create and edit correspondence, etc.  I learned from paralegals with over 20 years of experience how to run litigation.  To this day, as I am now at a senior level, I have learned why putting the Bates range on a letter to opposing counsel for production is absolutely necessary. 

Point 4: Training & Mentorship.  I was mentored by some of the best paralegals in the business about brief writing; cite checking, organization of exhibits in briefs and how to prepare courtesy copies for judges.  It was gently hammered into my brain that a paralegal must have an excellent grasp of trial exhibits, along with an extensive and thorough trial exhibit list.  I saw my mentor keep a close eye on all trial materials and pester the trial team of attorneys about progress, and this taught me a valuable set of skills, that define me today.  The resources available at a large firm are abundant and I don’t think I would be so confident in my skill set if it wasn’t for them.   They created a structure and concrete set of rules to run successful litigations and that exposure has helped me since I’ve move on to different experiences and a smaller pond. 

Point 5: Clearly Defined Roles.  With this much structure, experiences and responsibilities were clearly defined for me and became evident shortly after joining the firm.  Senior paralegals were directly responsible for the management of documents and preparation for all court filings, they answered for all projects handed to the attorneys.  At this firm, they sheppardized briefs to ensure all proper forms and court rules were followed with the organization of briefs and preparation of supporting exhibits.  Most of the senior attorneys treated the senior paralegals as invaluable team members and utilized their skills more often than the junior associates. 

Point 6: My Personal Role.  I began working on organization of documents for attorney review (um, bill  time much?) and document production issues.  I started off loading and pulling carts of documents printed out (before large scale electronic doc review was the norm) for review and production, indexed and organized the review sheets, copy checked the boxes of documents before the documents were sent to opposing counsel, organized binders of documents as requested and generally managed the copy jobs and time consuming organization of files.  Until I gained these experiences I didn’t move on to more advanced projects.  It’s the way the system worked or still does work, I assume.  Until I understood how documents were produced and how the information was assembled in litigation, I couldn’t move on to other types of responsibilities.  I believe with the structure I was exposed to, I hold a strong set of beliefs and skills that come solely from experience. 

Point 7: The Structure.  The seniors and the paralegal managers dictated the roles of each paralegal team member.  I believe if you worked with people who love their jobs, you learn a lot and acquire long lasting skills for your own “practice.”  The seniors and managers in my opinion either nurture you or deter you.  I met people who needed to define themselves, or required their positions define them.  While at the big firm, I had a great relationship with the senior paralegal on my team.  I also had exposure to some senior paralegals that made me think twice about this business.  I’ve met senior paralegals who told me “oh, I ONLY write and edit briefs, I don’t copy documents — that’s what you are here to do.” 

While my mentor was out of the office on maternity leave, I was responsible for preparation of all the trial exhibits and trial materials.  Another senior paralegal “assisting” with the project walked into the room and told me that I wasn’t going to see the inside a courtroom, because that’s not my role.  Overall, I was lucky, my senior paralegal mentored me.  She taught me how to organize a litigation and when I did something wrong, she never made me feel stupid, it was about fixing the problem, learning from it and moving on to the next item.  I truly believe that I do what it takes to get the job done because I worked with the types of people who wanted me to succeed and wanted the litigation to succeed.  But, in a large firm and where roles are clearly defined, you will meet people who use these rules and roles unnecessarily.  You have to see them for what they are attempting to accomplish in their lives and remember — work does not define you unless you allow it to. 

Point 8: Work Attire.  The biggest surprise to me has been that at my big firms, there were fewer restrictions on work attire.  The large firm was very casual and the mid size firm was business-casual with room for exception.  It’s been my experience at larger law firms, the object is to get the job done and defend/prosecute on behalf of the client with all resources and efforts available.  There is less time dedicated to issues of wardrobe because it doesn’t greatly hinder the goals of the firm.  

Point 9: Overall Perspective.  If you can handle large group settings and manage expectations of numerous people daily, with those expectations changing at a moment’s notice, you will succeed in a large firm.  Don’t get me wrong, you have to want to do the work and prove you can do it.  I would recommend a large firm to anyone starting out in the paralegal industry because you develop skills, organization and attention to detail. 

I wouldn’t take back my experiences for a minute.  At the big firms, I’ve met so many types of people and was introduced to many work styles, I feel like I can work with anyone now.  I’ve also learned I have a very low tolerance for people who allow a job to determine their self-worth, and that’s one of my short comings. 

Point 10:  What I Took From the Big Firm Experience.  At this stage in my career, I could have hit a plateau and become bored with my career, but exposure to a large group setting on a regular basis has allowed me to identify my weaknesses and work on improving my skills.  A large firm brings so many challenges to the table, I’ve learned to research other areas of law from which the practice revolved.   I’ve been exposed to problems that come with defending large client.  I’ve been given resources that might not be available at a small firm.  I have gained many contacts, vendors, suppliers, and created working relationships with colleagues that will last a life time if I ever have a problem or need assistance. 

Remember, there was a time we didn’t have groups like The Paralegal Society to help with our work issues.  Working with people, in person, is still my preference.  But I’m not going to say I don’t login to my paralegal chats regularly and make lists of ideas.   I am equally appreciative today for the exposure and skills obtained at a large firm, as well as the vast networking possibilities available via the Internet. 

I hope my personal story helps to shed some light on the key points you should consider with regard to firm size and all that a big firm potentially has to offer you, as a small fish in a big pond.  Be sure to watch for Part II of this Big Firm vs. Small Firm Series, which will be told through the eyes of Jamie Collins and will provide you with an insider perspective of working in a small firm.      

Elizabeth resides in Chicago, Illinois, where she works as a litigation paralegal.  She grew up in Ohio and attended Ohio University.  She was an officer in Phi Alpha Delta.  For her entire career, Elizabeth has worked at law firms which focused on the practice areas of patent litigation and trial preparation.   Elizabeth hopes to take her past experiences and move into the corporate sector for in-house counsel in the future.  

Do you have a thought to share regarding big firm life or your personal experience at a big firm?  Do you currently work in a big firm and love it?  Do you wish you were a big fish in a small pond instead?  Have you tried both?  What did you like better and why?  Please share your personal experiences with us regarding this topic!  We’d love to hear from you.