Chicago Was Our Back Up: Why We Practice in Grand Rapids

Author: Denise Wager

Bigger is not always better. That is what two Notre Dame Law School alumni told students about why they chose to work at a midsize firm in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the benefits that choice provided.

Large firms in metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, and small boutique firms, have their pros and cons, said Matthew O’Rourke, ’06 B.A., ’14 J.D., and Grant Schertzing, ’15 J.D., both associates at Miller Johnson in Grand Rapids. Midsize or regional law firms and midsize cities can provide lawyers with the best of both worlds, they said.

Associates at midsize firms have the opportunity to work with larger size clients and in a full range of practice areas, similar to the advantages of a large firm. Associates are often given more hands-on experience with clients and more complex and challenging work in the first three years than they may have at a larger firm, they both said.

The associate-to-partner ratio is usually lower at a midsize firm and it is often common to have one partner to one associate working on a case or with a client, compared to one partner to several associates on a case at larger firms, O’Rourke said.

“This leads to closer partner-and-associate mentoring and less of a competition among fellow associates because the partner gets to know you, what you are capable of, and then is more vested in you,” O’Rourke said.

Midsize firms also offer an opportunity to become an expert in a particular area of the law. As a first-year associate, Schertzing works in the Miller Johnson business and corporate section concentrating on real estate. He has negotiated leases, options, and purchase agreements, and managed closings for multi-million dollar properties, he said.

“A midsize firm offers you the ability to become an expert in an area because there are not that many other attorneys doing the exact same thing, as you may find at a larger firm,” Schertzing said.

As a second-year associate, O’Rourke has taken depositions, argued a summary judgment, and briefed cases for the Michigan Court of Appeals and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Other benefits to midsize firms are a stronger sense of teamwork, a more positive work environment, and the ability to build name recognition sooner with clients, opposing counsel, court staff, and local bar members, they said. It can be easier to find work-life balance at a midsized firm as well, because billable-hour requirements tend to be somewhat lower than larger firms, O’Rourke said.

Just as a midsize firm offers benefits, so does a midsize city.

Two advantages to living in Grand Rapids are lower housing costs and less traffic congestion, O’Rourke and Schertzing said. Lawyers who work in big cities often have to add hours to their day to commute to areas outside the city where they can afford homes, they said.

Grand Rapids is a growing city that is the headquarters to several large companies such as Meijer, Amway, and Steelcase, O’Rourke said. Forbes Magazine ranked Grand Rapids the Best City to Invest in for Housing in 2016 and the Best City to Raise a Family in 2012.

“The city is expanding and has a lot to offer culturally and recreationally,” said O’Rourke. “All of this is good for attorneys personally and professionally.”