What is a
Law firm?

The basics of understanding how law firms and the legal profession work.

What do Law Graduates do?

If you decide you want to work as a lawyer, you will probably work in a law firm. About 60% of LLB graduates practice law when they graduate and 67% of lawyers work in a law firm. A lawyer who does not practice in a law firm will be an in-house lawyer. While a law firm will work for many different clients, an in-house lawyer deals with the legal affairs of a single organisation. 

The non-practicing 40% of law graduates go into an enormous range of careers! Some chose to go straight into further study. Some go into policy work for the government. Some start their own businesses. Some work as business consultants, work for charities or companies. 

Whatever you chose to do when you finish, your degree will have equipped you with the skills to do it great. The world is your oyster! You can do anything you set out to achieve.  

What is a Law firm?

Law firms come in different shapes and sizes! They range from having a single lawyer to having over 200. Some international law firms have thousands of lawyers working for them. There are over 2000 law firms in New Zealand, all over the country. 

The average number of lawyers in a New Zealand law firm is between 5 and 6. So don’t worry if you aren’t working at a huge commercial law firm from day 1 – most lawyers aren’t! Smaller law firms may specialise in very particular areas of law, others will cover many areas. Firms that offer everything are called full-service law firms and generally have different teams of lawyers for each field. 

You may notice that law firms are all known by last names. Law firms are usually named after the founding partners, who set up the firm. However, the name can change. A law firm may be acquired by, or merge with another law firm and subsequently add, drop, or completely change its name. 

For example, the firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts takes the name MinterEllison by association with the Australian firm Minter Ellison, and was previously Rudd Watts & Stone, which was a merger of three separate law firms: Rudd Garland Horrocks Stewart Johnson, Stone & Co and Watts & Patterson. 

What is a barrister?

Another way that Lawyers practice law is as barristers. Barristers may work alone or may hire junior barristers or clerks to help them with their work. When barristers share an office arrangement with other barristers, it is called a chambers. 

Traditionally, the roles of a lawyer were split. Solicitors engaged with the lay-people, and barristers engaged with the bar. New Zealand operations under a fused system, where you can elect to be both a barrister & solicitor or just a barrister. 

Barristers may have their own clients, but they also assist law firms with court cases and if so will be the people acting in court. A Junior barrister who works under a senior barrister cannot take on their own clients. 

To become a senior barrister, a barrister sole, you need to apply for you practising certificate as a barrister (instead of a barrister & solicitor), do the Law Society’s Stepping Up course, and pass an interview. The perks of practising as a barrister are that you can set your own fees, face less supervision, and can focus on thee area of law you really like. Many barristers make the switch later in their careers.  

https://www.careers.govt.nz/jobs-database/government-law-and-safety/law/barrister/ 

Positions in a Law Firm 

When you graduate you will probably start your legal career as a clerk or paralegal. Once you get admitted to the bar, you will be a solicitor or junior solicitor. Each firm structures their ranks a little differently, but generally, the hierarchy goes solicitor, associate, then partner. Other roles in a law firm include special counsel, a position that sits between associate and partner used to recognise senior lawyers based on expertise, often a step towards becoming a partner; and consultants, who are like partners but without the managerial responsibilities.  

Law firms, especially large ones, require a lot of non-legal staff. There may be receptionists and secretaries. Senior lawyers may have personal assistants and teams may have administrative staff. For example, a Trust team is likely to have a Trust Account Administrator to deal with day-to-day administration such as payments. The Practice Manager will be responsible for the day-to-day operation of the firm. Large firms will have their own Human Resources staff, and IT Managers. Law firms may also hire students to help with legal or non-legal work around the office. 

https://www.careers.govt.nz/jobs-database/government-law-and-safety/law/solicitor/

Partnership

Law firms are usually structured as partnerships. The position of partner at a law firm is very prestigious. While the specifics again vary from firm to firm, you can only become a partner if the existing partners at your firm invite you, or if you go and set up your own law firm. To become a partner, you will need to ‘buy in’ to the firm by contributing some of your own money. You then own part of the law firm and are directly liable for its profits but also for everyone else’s mistakes.  

Because the partners of a law firm own the firm, they make decisions about the firm together. For example, the decision to invite an associate to partner, to change the firm’s name, or to hire a new clerk may all be made by the partners through a vote or other decision-making method. 

Most firms operate as unlimited liability partnerships. This means that the partners are personally liable for the work that the firm does. The Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 gave firms the ability to incorporate and operate as limited liability. About one-third of law firms are now incorporated. They are still liable, but just not as much.  

What does firm size mean for you?

Small Firm
Up to 5 partners

You will probably get to have responsibility for clients and do very hands-on work straight away at a small firm. However, the area you work in may be quite specialised. A small firm is a good choice if you know what area of law you want to work in.  

Medium Firm
6 to 20 partners

At a medium-sized firm, there will be a broader range of work than at small firms. You may get to work on a range of areas, but perhaps not get the same responsibilities as you would at a small firm.  

Large Firm
More than 20 partners

Large firms often have very structured recruitment processes with training, induction, and team rotations. When you start working at a large firm you might work on a very specific parts of large projects. 

What does a Lawyer do?

As a lawyer, you can be involved in a wide range of roles such as 

 

  • Meeting with clients 
  • Meeting with other lawyers 
    • From within the firm 
    • Who are representing other parties 
  • Researching advice for clients 
  • Drafting documents 
    • Wills 
    • Trusts 
    • Contracts 
    • Write letters 
  • Discovery (research for a case) 
  • Represent a client in a tribunal or court proceeding