Senior Associate in a Big Firm, or Partner in a Small Firm?

8 January 2019

With the inevitable bottleneck of senior associates that can happen at larger firms, many senior lawyers at some point will think: why not just try to find a Principal/Partner position at a smaller firm?

Perhaps that might offer a significantly greater degree of satisfaction.

But perhaps it won’t.

Let’s consider things that might need to be part of your thought process if this is the boat you find yourself in.

What’s the Missing Piece?

As is inevitable with significant life decisions, the first and best question you can ask is… “why?”

That is: why are you even thinking about it?

Are you frustrated about lack of promotion? Want a better lifestyle? Desire more direct client contact or opportunity for growth? Not sure you’re even a good fit for partnership at your current firm?

Whatever the case, you can’t really find a solution until you know what the issue is. Because moving to a smaller firm and taking an offer of partnership might not solve the problem, so it pays to identify what the missing or wrong pieces are so you can ensure any move you might make is worth it.

Do Smaller Firms Actually Pay Partners Less?

One of the bigger concerns you’ll have is that you are passing up some great financial reward that’s just sitting there waiting for you at the end of the rainbow. This is a bit of a myth, or at least a half-truth.

More and more there are significantly profitable smaller firms around. They might be ex top-tier partners with excellent clients, specialist practices with niche expertise, or perhaps just firms that have minimised their costs through leveraging technology and can offer significant rewards as a result.

Of course, that’s not the case with every smaller firm, so it pays (literally) to do your research and choose wisely.

If you’re considering the move because of a potential for more in your pocket, then know that a smaller firm doesn’t mean smaller drawings.

Is Being a Partner of a Small Firm a Better Lifestyle?

Large firms, to some degree, have safety in numbers.

If you work in a litigation team with 3 partners and 1 of them goes on holidays, what do you do if you need something important signed? You go to a different partner, right?

And if that doesn’t work or they’re not available, then you’ll probably be able to find a friendly partner in another group or a senior lawyer somewhere to help you with what’s needed.

But what if you’re 1 of 2 partners in a firm with no other solicitors, 1 clerk and 2 paralegals, and your business partner has a freak accident one day when you’re supposed to be home with your kids for the school holidays?

Yep – you’re probably going to be heading in to work.

Owning a piece of a small business is serious business, and there is a huge difference between having 0.005% equity in a firm with 49 other partners and having 50% of the risks and benefits of a business with only 1 other person.

So don’t assume that “small firm” means “less work”. It could well mean just as much, or more.

Tonnes of Pressure

It isn’t uncommon for a senior associate in a large firm to have limited, if any, actual experience in marketing or business development.

After all, if you started in that firm and simply worked on inconceivably large matters for large institutional clients your entire career, then perhaps you haven’t needed to develop those skills.

As a senior associate in a large firm you might be a “safe pair of hands”. Work comes in, people give it to you, and you execute it well.

But as a partner in a small firm, that’s quite possibly going to change. If you don’t get clients and work, then maybe there just won’t be clients and work.

So can you deal with that? If your wages/drawings are dependent to some degree on the work you bring in, do you have those skills or can you develop them? Are you comfortable with that risk?


As a cog in a larger machine, many lawyers in large firms have little direct impact or influence on the behemoth that is their firm. Sure, you might give it a nudge here and there, but unless/until you have a substantial amount of power (human, financial, practical) inside the firm you might find that being a salaried partner there isn’t too much different from being a senior associate.

This might be comforting, or it might be very frustrating.

The smaller the firm the greater the impact you can have upon it. Your efforts will “move the needle” more (both successes and failures) and you will have a greater amount of influence over the direction and strategy of the firm, its budget and priorities, and can genuinely own its successes more readily.

So is Moving from SA at a Large firm to Partner in a Smaller Firm Worth It?

Really it’s going to depend on your situation.

For some, taking what could be a slower road to partnership in the larger firm might still offer the better decision.

But for others, the risk and reward of smaller firm partnership might be too attractive to pass up.

If you’re not sure either way, get in touch and we’ll happily have a chat through the pros and cons.