Private practice law firms are where many law school graduates begin their legal careers. However, nationally only a small percentage accept positions in large firms; the majority seek and locate positions in smaller and mid-sized firms.
Large firms do their recruiting and hiring predominately through the Fall Recruitment Program, which focuses on students in their second year who will work for the firm for their second-year summer as a summer associate. Large firms generally recruit students in the top tier of their class and the programs are very structured. The hiring process is usually completed between July after the first year and November of the second year of law school.
Recruiting committees and hiring partners control the selection process. The competition for these positions is very high and the firms receive thousands of résumés from students throughout the country. You must possess superior academics and writing skills. Many firms look for students who are on a journal or moot court board.
The hiring emphasis for these large firms is recruiting 2Ls for summer associate programs. While some of them do recruit third-year students, the numbers are much smaller because they fulfill their primary hiring through the 2L summer associate programs. Large firms are often departmentalized into practice groups and specializations. In large firms, the opportunity for significant client contact and independent action is much less than in smaller firms and other legal employers, but the salaries are much higher. This is many times offset by many more hours worked.
This is the sector where most students get started in private practice. Some small and mid-sized firms recruit formally through the CDO, but most either post jobs in the CDO Job Bank or do not actively recruit unless they have a vacancy. Their recruiting plans are based on actual need, not what is projected for the next five years like large law firms. Many smaller firms hire on a permanent basis from students who have worked for the firm part-time during law school or hire recent graduates after bar passage.
These firms focus more on people who have direct work experience relevant to their practice areas, law school extra-curricular activities and personal qualities that are a good fit for the firm.
Smaller firms may be boutique practices that focus on a particular area of the law or general practice firms that offer broader services. Associates and law clerks are given a great deal of responsibility. Salaries vary drastically in these firms and some offer creative options that include a salary combined with a draw on profits.