The vast majority of lawyers in the United States are involved in the private practice of law, either in law firms or in solo practice.
Most of Cornell's graduates initially begin their careers by working as associates for large law firms. (Beware of the terminology when discussing the size of law firms, for depending upon the geographic location, large can mean 50+ or 200+.) The atmosphere at such law firms varies immensely, in part depending upon the firm's location and in part upon the particular style of the firm.
Compensation, of course, may vary as well. A firm known for its “laid back” style where associates are expected to bill 1200 hours a year may not be paying the same salary as the firm known for its “sweat shop” mentality where new associates are pressured to work sufficiently long hours to bill at least 2500 hours a year.
The positive sides of practice in large or mid-size firms tend to be economic security, well-developed training programs, and for at least some, intellectual challenge. The negative sides mentioned frequently are the lack of responsibility, the lack of client contact, and the frustrations attached to being a “cog in the wheel” rather than an active player in the firm’s policy-making structure. Most of the firms that participate in on-campus recruiting are in this large and mid-size group.
Increasing numbers of young graduates are opting for employment in smaller cities with smaller law firms of five-30 attorneys. Some seek and find such positions upon graduation, others spend a few years in the larger firms and then move laterally into smaller firms. While the Career Services Office staff encourages smaller firms to recruit on campus, the reality is that few can spare the time to visit law schools. Openings are sporadic. Such firms assume that interested candidates will contact them directly.
If you are targeting smaller firms, please make an appointment with a counselor to discuss your strategy, as it is much different than the approach to larger firms. In addition, attend numerous programs that the Career Services Office plans at which students can discuss small firm practice with attorneys. The Career Services Office has published a Small Firm Job Search Handbook which contains detailed information and resources to guide you in this type of job search.
Very few graduates of Cornell Law initially “hang out their shingle” and engage in law practice by themselves, but this is in fact what most graduates of many law schools do upon graduation. The positive side of solo practice is the independence; the negative sides are the financial uncertainties, and for the new lawyer, the lack of a mentoring relationship with an experienced attorney. Numerous books have been written about how to start up your own law practice, bar associations routinely run “Bridge the Gap” programs, and workshops on the subject abound.