For what it's worth, I am currently a law student and I work at my family's small law firm. We currently have one senior attorney and 3 associates and we handle a pretty diverse array of cases. Our senior attorney has built a pretty solid reputation in criminal defense so the majority of our business is State and Fed criminal defense from DUI to murder and everything in between. For civil stuff, we do a lot of contract cases, evictions, foreclosure defense, and RE related matters.
- you decide which cases to take and which one are not worth your time- choose your own adventure;
- if you understand customer service you can build your clientele quickly;
- in time, you can make serious money;
- more autonomy- you take your cases and work on them however you want;
- you will gain an incredible amount of experience in a short period of time- one of our attorneys has worked here for a year and a half and has already tried 60 cases, criminal and civil. Granted these were not huge multi-million dollar cases, but even seemingly simple, small cases can be interesting and involve complex legal issues that other bad lawyers would not have spotted or would have goofed up. In general, if you are really good at something, it will be immediately apparent and you will be rewarded;
- benefits of working in a small-business atmosphere- no annoying departments, forms for everything, or corporate bureaucracy;
- if you are a hands-on person and are motivated, you can make a big impact;
- working at a small firm will help you immensely if you want to open up your own practice one day.
- people on law school forums may look down upon you;
- pay and benefits such as healthcare, 401k, etc. are not as great as with bigger law firms;
- working in a small-business atmosphere is not for everybody- people used to HR, employee handbooks, and departments will feel out of place;
- compatibility of your personality is super important since you are only one of 10 employees instead of one out of a 100;
- you have much more responsibility than someone who just handles one part of a case- you may have to figure out how to handle a case from client intake to trial with very little hand-holding.
The way I see it, in a small practice, the big plus is experience. Handling tons of trials will help you be more persuasive in the courtroom, which will ultimately help you if you ever want to hang up your own shingle. In addition, if you have honed litigation skills, you can eventually become a member of the Fed trial bar and take on sweet cases that that pay in excess of $50,000, which would pay less in State court.
As another poster said, DUI's can be good business if you have a steady stream and if you are any good at it. Like investing, it pays to have both bread and butter cases to pay the bills and also more complex cases that pay more in the long run.
To be clear, I have never worked at a Big law firm, so I can't claim to have first hand experience. However, until about ten years ago, my dad was was a managing partner of another firm that looked and acted more like Big law. They did corporate tort defense for big clients like ComEd, CTA, and the Chicago Park District. That firm made a lot of money but for certain people (my dad) it just wasn't worth the additional headaches that comes with managing a ton of people and space. I think a lot of it comes down to personality.