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By: Jamie Collins

When I was initially thought up the idea for this particular series regarding firm size, I was excited!  Then I read Elizabeth’s article regarding the “big” firm experience.  I breathed a deep, self-indulgent sigh as thoughts of expense account dinners, vast corridors packed with legal support staff galore and a firm with its own freakin’ zip code – complete with an enchanted garden of office supplies – came to mind. Whoa!!  What paralegal died and went to heaven?

Then I came back to reality.  I was sitting at my desk in my cozy window office in a small firm in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Reality sets in with a loud thud…in case you were wondering…or perhaps that was just my head slamming downward onto my desk, as I mentally attempted to grab some of those sweet office supplies that floated by taunting me from the periphery of my paralegal mind.  Welcome back, Jamie – welcome back.  As I exited paralegal heaven and, more specifically, the enchanted garden of office supplies, a silent, inward thought crept into my mind. Perhaps there’s not much to tell them about the small firm experience after all?

It was in that very moment that a rebuttal thought leapt into immediate action – much like a jaguar leaping onto its prey.  I thought to myself…you have worked in small firms for the past 14 years of your life (that’s 29,120 hours, excluding overtime, in case anyone’s counting) and ya know what?  It’s amazing!

While I may not receive expense account dinners and I am, at any given moment, the fax girl, the file opener girl, madam file clerk extraordinaire, the copy girl (just love it when the paper jams) and for all intensive purposes, the glorified “whatever else needs to be done at any given moment” girl, there is something fabulous hidden amidst the chaos. We are the Jack Bauers of the paralegal world.  There is a lot to be said for the small firm paralegals all across the country. I am proud to be among them.  So what are small firms all about?  Let me tell you!  After all, I have clocked nearly 30,000 hours observing the ins and outs at small firms, haven’t I?  Yes, indeed.  So, let me take you on a little journey inside the small firm experience.

The Structure.  If by structure, you mean you get to arrive in a building each day, that’s a check!  If you mean  a laundry list of formal procedures, pink slips and/or processes the firm lives and dies by…probably not so much.  Small firms are generally managed by one (or more) of the attorneys who may or may not have any prior management or small business experience (emphasis on “may not”).  It is often ran a bit like a fly by the seat of your pants operation.  Not always, but often.  Many firms try to implement formal handbooks, policies and procedures, but at small firms, the partners can change their mind about a policy any time the wind blows.  They are in charge and they run the firm as they deem fit.

Supplies.  Supplies. What are those?  Can we skip this one?  Okay, I’m kidding…well…sort of.  Small firms are typically not known for possessing a fully-stocked arsenal of office supplies.  Heck, on some days, we’d be happy with just a decent inventory of our favorite blue ink pens and some redwell folders.  However, the small firms I’ve worked for were all fairly good about ordering necessary office supplies.  While there was an occasional shortage of clips, blue pens or copy paper, we typically always had what we needed to function.  There was certainly no enchanted garden of office supplies at my fingertips, but I didn’t really need for anything either.  Does this mean I often placed a last minute order for those coveted numbered tabbies I so desperately needed for a brief?  Perhaps, but they typically arrived the next business day by 2:00 p.m. (only a desperate paralegal would memorize the arrival time, right?) thanks to the local supply vendor, so it all works out.  You’ll have what you need, but certainly not a California-style office cabinet packed with an over-abundance of every possible thing a paralegal could wish for.  There is no supply heaven at a small firm.  The business is run more like a household.  When times are tight, supplies will not overfloweth.

Resources and Technology.  Every small firm I’ve worked for has actually had really nice technology.  We have had nice, flat screen Dell computers, a decent copier (yes, just one), a fax machine and a Pitney Bowes postage meter.  Granted, there was no one present to operate any of those machines on my behalf, but they were nice.  We also had access to Civicnet, PACER (our local court sites), Westlaw, and any other sites we needed in order to conduct research, look up cases or people and work efficiently.  Did we have litigation support people?  Ha. That would be a no. Those only come standard in big firm paralegal heaven!  We typically contracted all of our IT services through an independent company and when we had a computer glitch or technology issue, we called them and within a few hours, life was good. There is not an elite army of litigation support guru ninjas, but we do get by.

At my current office, I have a flat screen t.v. with cable in my office, so don’t be under the misconception that all small firms have drab offices with furniture that looks like it came from the local Good Will.  That is simply not the case.  Each small firm is different, but most have decent accommodations, resources and technology, at least in my personal experience.

Training & Mentorship.  Small firm training can often go a little something like this:Here’s your desk.” That is code language for: “you can start working now.”  In reality, you will probably receive anywhere from a few hours to a day of training at a small firm and it’s typically from a senior level paralegal, then you’re on your own.  That can be both good and bad.

The upside to small firms, if you are fortunate enough to work for friendly attorneys, is that they will often mentor and guide you through the early phases of your career.  My best teachers in the legal biz were all attorneys I worked for…and many of them were pretty high profile people.  If you are lucky enough to find an attorney who takes a special interest in educating you about all there is to know in paralegal world, pull up a chair and hang on his/her every word.  Seriously.  It is an added perk, even if the pay isn’t that great in the beginning.  So, small firms may not have formal training structures, but if you work for a friendly attorney, you will learn so much so fast.  It can be your golden ticket into the next paralegal realm.

The Atmosphere.  Small firms are typically pretty tight knit.  The team atmosphere is in full effect and everyone knows what everyone else likes to order for lunch at any given place.  You will often dine with your co-workers at lunch.  Even at my first job, when I worked as a receptionist, I often found myself dining with the attorneys.  The more you hang out with attorneys and listen to them talk (and think out loud), the more you will become like them.  I honestly credit much of my success to the attorneys that I hung out with in the early years of my career.  They helped to pull me along.  When I left each firm, I had a close knit handful of people to add to my personal and professional network.  People I will never forget.  They helped to shape me as a paralegal and in many ways, as a person.  Small firms offer a great atmosphere for an aspiring paralegal.

The Pay & Benefits.  At a small firm (at least back when I started out), they were willing to train new paralegals because, in turn, they were able to pay you much less than they would a “real” paralegal for a number of years.  In exchange for their efforts, they were saving on the bottom line.  It’s a win-win if you can find small firm that is willing to train you in exchange for basically accepting a lesser salary than you might earn at a big firm.  My advice?  Take it!  Learn all you can and eventually, you will earn that money you’re missing out on today.  The money comes with time and experience.  Small firms often have benefits which include paid vacation, paid sick and personal time, medical, dental and vision plans.  They may or may not have retirement plans.  Obviously, solo practitioners may not offer all of these benefits, but in my experience, I was always offered medical benefits, paid vacation and sick time.  Always.

Independence.  As a paralegal at a small firm, you learn to work independently.  You become a master of time management, organization and efficiency.  This is because so much responsibility falls on your shoulders.  You will see each file from inception through completion.  Will you open folders for a new case?  Yes.  Will you do manual filing of papers into files?  Yes.  (Bang…sorry, that was me slamming my head back down on the desk…filing…love it!)  You will do all the substantive legal work too.  In essence, you will do EVERYTHING.  If it needs to be done, you will be the one doing it.  So, you will quickly learn that with so much responsibility, you must become organized, efficient and creates processes and systems to help you keep it all under control.  You will become independent or you will likely be fired.  Most people have no trouble adapting.  Independence is key at a small firm.

Federal Protections.  If your firm has less than 15 employees (and most small firms do), you have no federal protections under the law, pursuant to Title VII , the ADA or the ADEA, although you could still possibly have a state law claim.  In other words, you cannot have a federal law claim against your employer for discrimination based upon your age, race, sex, national origin, religion, or disability.  Federal protections typically only extend to firms (and employers) with 15 or more employees, so you have limited rights, which would fall back to state law, in the event you ever experience one of these unfortunate forms of discrimination. (I am a paralegal, not an attorney, so I am simply offering this as general information, not legal advice).

While most firms are pretty awesome and you won’t experience these types of issues, it is a point worth mentioning.  Federal protections do not apply to many small firms if they employ less than 15 employees.  There will be no FMLA leave, no COBRA, no preganancy discrimination claims, and no other forms of discrimination claims (at least not under federal law) .  Keep that in mind.

Sink or swim.  There is nothing to hide behind at a small firm.  Your success or failure will be your own.  You will either thrive in a chaotic environment where you are expected to be in control of everything or you will crumble like a wet vanilla wafer in a meat grinder.  Some people find this pressure intimidating.  Let me assure you that in this type of environment, you will learn to swim quickly – or you will sink.  On a positive note, paralegals that rise to the top of their game at small firms are like heroes.  The attorneys will know exactly how good you really are and trust me — they won’t want to lose you.  You will feel respected, appreciated, valued and like an essential member of a very important team.  It’s like having a work family.  You will know the names of each other’s wives, husbands and children and a lot about each other personally.  Small firms typically have great camaraderie and close, professional relationships.

Jack Bauer is in the house…I mean firm.  And Jack is often a woman.  Jack kicks butts and takes names.  “Jackie” Bauer is busier than a one legged woman in a butt kicking contest.  She gets the job done.  She disarms bombs (I mean deadlines), rescues the president (I mean attorney) and saves the world (I mean firm).  Catch my drift?  Jack is a bad ass.  So are we.  That’s who we are.  That’s what we do.  We assess.  We conquer.  We dominate.  We ask you what’s next?  That’s who we are.  So, while I may have felt my husband wasted one hour of each work week dedicated to watching seemingly retarded episodes of 24 (each episode was the same in my mind…), it does have its comparative value, doesn’t it?  At a small firm, you will learn how to do anything and everything.  You will dominate the small firm with your knowledge and skill set if you learn to hone your paralegal craft.

Conclusion: Small Firm are Great! Small firm paralegals learn to be the queen/king of the land.  We make the firm run seamlessly. We get the job done right each and every time from inception through closing.  So, I may do manual filing, open files, and unjam the freakin’ copier umpteen-thousand times during a copying marathon, but you know what?  I dominate my little legal world.  I am the Jackie Bauer at my small firm…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I’d love to tell you more, but I’m off the save the President…

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What are your thoughts on the small firm experience, TPS readers?  Is your view on small firms similar to mine or do you have a different perspective to share?  Are you a Jackie Bauer too?  Is there anything else our readers should know about small firm life? Please feel free to leave a comment!  We’d love to hear from you.