Small Town Practice, Big Career Benefits
Small town practice is just different than big city practice. In law school there is a heavy emphasis placed on the large centers and practicing in “big law”. Big Law is usually referring to the large national or multi-national law firms that have several offices and many lawyers working for them. I’ve also heard Big Law refer to any other large city firms, which in Alberta would be Calgary or Edmonton, which are not a small or medium sized firms (under 50 lawyers).
There seems to be a sentiment in law school that you are less than if you “end up” in a small town. Students seem to think that individuals that are in a small town or small firm are there because they weren’t good enough to get a job at a big law firm. For some this may be the case, but for others in small towns and small firms, they are there by choice.
Before I go on, there are exceptions to every rule and every circumstance. I can only speak to my experience, what I’ve heard, what I’ve been told, and what I’ve observed. Is Big Law the big villain that is an awful experience for anyone who works there? No, absolutely not. This Scheff Shares is intended to provide a different perspective to small town practice and share the benefits of it, as well as compare it to the often cited pitfalls of Big Law. If you love being in Big Law, I’m genuinely happy that you found the environment that allows you to be successful; but if you’re unsure if that’s for you or you’re in Big Law and might want a change, keep reading.
I knew very early on that Big Law wasn’t for me. I knew that the long hours, style of practice, limited involvement in files for juniors, and lack of work/life balance wasn’t going to be an environment I thrived in. Sure, the money would have been great, but at what cost? This perspective had me swimming upstream in law school. I was one of the few people in my cohorts that were not participating in the OCI process and was not actively seeking out Big Law jobs.
At times I was uneasy about this but I knew Big Law didn’t align with my priorities which were a) to have a work/life balance that allowed me to prioritize the relationships in my life, most importantly, my marriage as well as allowed me to have hobbies and a life outside of law; b) preserving my mental health; and c) having meaningful roles in files and relationships with clients early on in my career.
Learning Opportunities in Small Firms
I currently practice in a firm of eleven lawyers and have spent my entire career thus far with Davidson & Williams. I started in my 2L summer, then articled with them, and then continued as an associate after being called to the Alberta bar in June 2020. Being in a small firm has provided me with opportunities I feel I wouldn’t have had in Big Law.
One of my first assignments as an articling student was to spend a few weeks on site at a client’s offices reviewing their files to ensure that they had adequate security to protect their interests. It had me immersed immediately in the law of personal property security (which was something I loved in law school) and had me interacting with the client on a daily basis for several weeks.
When I was back at the office that summer, I was encouraged to sit in on client meetings, questionings, attend court, or take on opportunities that interested me, and all of the lawyers were more than happy to teach me and have me along to observe. I did my fair share of document review and research but it wasn’t all that I did, which is something you often hear in Big Law. You may also hear that it’s not just students that spend much of their time doing document review and research, but also their junior associates.
As an associate, I am encouraged to work independently, but always with the safety net of having someone to ask questions of and receive mentorship from. I have never been turned away when I’ve had a question and have always been given feedback on any written work that I’ve asked for eyes on. I have my own files, which I’m empowered to lead, and check-in with my mentors around the firm as questions arise.
We practice very collaboratively at our firm and it’s common to see lawyers in our office discussing our files with one another seeking feedback, advice, and gaining perspective about the best way to handle a matter. This environment has been fabulous to be a junior in because I feel like I’ve learned so much more and so much more quickly than I’d have learned it in another environment. Further, I feel that it allows me to provide better service to my clients because I’m able to make better decisions and ensure that I consider all aspects of a file – especially ones that I may not have seen on my own.
Another experience that I’ve had in a small firm that I don’t believe I’d have had in Big Law, at least this early in my career, is that I have a file at the Alberta Court of Appeal. What I feel is unique about this experience is that I’ve had carriage of this file from the beginning when it was just a stop order appeal. When it turned into a Court of Appeal matter, it wasn’t taken away from me and given to a partner to conduct, but instead I was empowered to continue with the file with ample support from our senior litigators and partners.
It has been an enormously valuable learning experience because I had to apply for permission to appeal which involved drafting a memorandum of argument as well as oral argument in front of a single judge. After successfully obtaining permission, I had the opportunity to draft a factum and put together all of the supplementary materials. The next steps will be the hearing in front of a three-judge panel at which I’ll be making submissions. At all stages, I prepared the work product and then received feedback and comments on my drafts and I prepared the oral argument and practiced in front of other lawyers, then had the opportunity to make the submissions at the hearing.
In my opinion, this kind of experiential learning is leaps and bounds above observational learning or piece-meal learning where you are only involved tangentially in a file.
You may not stay in a small firm for your entire career but starting your career at one can put you further ahead on the learning curve and have you feeling more comfortable and confident as a lawyer earlier than others of your same call year. If you make an eventual transition to a larger firm or larger center, you will be much more useful and quite frankly, profitable, to your firm than your colleagues of the same call year.
It’s no secret that I love to volunteer. I sit on a myriad of boards and committees and have done so since I was an articling student. When you practice in a small town, you begin to create a reputation for yourself and hope that this reputation helps you to bring in work to your firm.
After three and a half years in Lethbridge, I’m at a point now that when I go out to events, I recognize many people in the room and it makes me feel like I’m a part of the community. It’s something that really fills my cup and is valuable to me.
I’ve always loved the idea of the small town solicitor – being the go-to lawyer for your client for any problem they may have and building a long-term relationship with your client. What I absolutely love about being in Lethbridge is it is the perfect blend of big city amenities with a small town feel. The business community has been extremely welcoming, and I’ve built many great relationships in the three and a half years I’ve lived here.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a pitch for practicing in Lethbridge specifically. Lethbridge, at the third largest city in Alberta, is full of opportunity. It is the economic hub in southern Alberta – close to the US Border and BC Border – and offers many opportunities for recreation with the mountains close by. It is not dependent on oil prices like many Alberta cities; and instead has agri-food, manufacturing, and retail/hospitality as its main economic drivers. This allows Lethbridge to weather the oil booms and busts better than most cities.
Outside of Calgary and Edmonton, Lethbridge’s census metropolitan area also had the largest percentage of population growth at 2.3% over the last year. Lastly, the most recent Brighter Together Survey showed that the top three strengths of living in Lethbridge were quality of life; collaborative environment; and proximity to complimentary industries. While there can be a lot of emphasis placed on practicing in Calgary and Edmonton, if you’re considering a move, don’t count Lethbridge out. You won’t regret it.
Work/life balance is a huge buzzword in the profession right now and has been for a while, but I think its much more achievable in a small firm. I believe our firm captures the ebbs and flows of work/life balance well. On a whole, you generally won’t find anyone in the office beyond 6/6:30 p.m. and generally not earlier than 7:30/8:00 a.m. As a student and as an associate, I was discouraged from working late and on weekends beyond what was absolutely necessary – sometimes its unavoidable due to deadlines; but on a whole this is the case.
That’s not to say that lawyers in small firms don’t work hard – don’t make the mistake of equating time in the office with how hard someone works. As many found out during COVID, you can be highly productive in shorter workdays. Plus, taking care of yourself better positions you to have the brain capacity to operate at your peak efficiency. Not to mention, given the state of mental health in our profession, having a better work/life balance will help to ensure longevity in your career and happiness as a lawyer.
There are times when I have to work late or work a weekend day but on a whole, I put a lot of effort into preserving separation between my personal life and my work life. I have created clear boundaries and do my best to stick to them. I have heard from more than one person in Big Law that they are on call 24/7 as a student and junior associate. I have had friends in Big Law who’ve slept at the office or been at the office until 2 or 3 a.m. just to be back at 7 or 8 a.m. I have friends in Big Law who regularly work 6 or 7 days a week, work when they are extremely ill, and are consumed by their concern about meeting or failing to meet their billable hour targets.
That’s not a lifestyle that I am suited for, and I can bet that if you reflected on your own values, it’s probably not a lifestyle that you’re suited for either. That’s not to say that there aren’t small firms that subscribe to this way of practice but more often than not, I have observed that smaller firms don’t practice law in this fashion. I certainly do not.
All of this to say, if you’re thinking about a transition or about where you might like to begin your career, I would strongly urge you to consider life outside of the big cities and Big Law, you won’t regret it.