New actors are best directed to work with smaller agencies in the beginning. Ideally, if you can get a medium sized agency to "hip pocket" you, you'll be in a better situation than signing a contract with a small agency before you get work. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties, the agency had a lawyer write theirs, you get to have a lawyer go over a contract before you sign it. An agreement means both parties have had a say in who's covered, what's covered, why it's covered, how it's worded and what consequences there are to breaking the agreement. A contract is not one-sided, it's not "take it or leave it." If you sign a contract without reading it, or having your attorney read it, then you give away all negotiating power after it's signed.
Having said that, you are forewarned.
"Hip pocketing," means you can say that the agent in question is your agent if you get work on your own. You usually can't put the name of the agency on your résumé or head-shots, but if you're offered a job you can respond with, "Talk to my agent." You definitely won't get a call from this agent to go in for an audition. "Hip pocketing," means if you find an acting job on your own then the agent will usually sign with you and charge a reasonable commission for negotiating the best deal for you. It's not a bad deal for the young professional actor just starting out. Some agents will "hip pocket" an actor, many will not.
When you start to scout for an agent ask yourself, "what's reasonable?" Is it reasonable for an agent to charge you money up front to represent you? Is it reasonable to have to remove your clothes for an audition for an agent? Is it reasonable that your agent wants you to have new headshots from the photographer of his or her choosing? Is it reasonable that you have to take acting classes provided by an agent? Is it reasonable that an agent provides acting classes? Anytime you sense a conflict of interest there usually is one.
Personal Manager or Agent? Well, you make the choice and take your chances. First of all, if you're at the beginning of your career do you really have anything to manage yet? In California there are laws which prohibit Agents from becoming involved financially with productions but managers are free to engage in whatever interests them. So, managers there have a degree of flexibility that agents do not enjoy. In Washington you don't even have to have a business license to call yourself an agent, or a manager, much less be licensed by the state.
Look at it this way, you won't even be recognized as a professional until you have joined the professional unions. You might contact the Unions (SAG, AFTRA, AEA, you can search their sites from the bottom of this page) and find out what the requirements are for joining in Seattle. You can also get a list of approved agents from the unions. Getting your union card will help you enormously when securing legitimate representation. It tells the agent that you're serious enough to go about securing employment without their aid and that you've already paid some dues (or at least initiation fees). Finally, and this is the absolute truth, there are only two people on earth who care about your career: you and your mother, and the only person whom you can depend on to get you a job acting is yourself. Your agent's job is to negotiate the best deal for you once you have gotten hired. A manager will do that as well as provide guidance in your career choices and possibly your financial dealings. Part of their motivation has to be finding the next big star but the strongest reason for their interest in your success is their own ability to meet payroll. Those are the things which establish their reputations in the industry.
Agents are very protective of their reputations. The simple fact is that 90% of the people who call themselves actors have no business being in the business. That accounts for a lot of the 95% unemployment rate among actors. An Agent who sends out someone who is ill-prepared to compete runs a real risk of destroying his or her reputation with the casting agency. Many Washington agencies offer classes, which actors pay for, to ensure that no such damage can be made. That's reasonable in some ways but are these agencies really qualified to teach anything? In Washington, casting agents can offer classes, in California that practice is about to become illegal. Casting directors and agents share a similarity in that one of the their chief interests is in making sure that whomever they send to a director or producer doesn't embarrass them. So, they offer their little classes, which are not long enough or substantial enough for learning to take place, where they make the actor "hit the mark," or learn a monologue, or make eye contact with the casting director. It's all very superficial and has nothing to do with acting. I say this in class from time to time -- if you can act it's easy to hit your mark, if you can act you can do any speech you're handed, if you can act you have the confidence to look anyone square in the eye. If you can act the only thing you have to worry about is showing up on time and prepared. If you can act, even if you're not right for the part they're casting, they will hang on to your picture and résumé because they are in the business of finding people who can act! If you are not a trained actor the best you can hope for is to hit your mark and not embarrass your agent.
Now that the line is drawn let me say this, agents and managers who offer classes in acting are like car salesmen who offer classes in driving or attorneys who offer classes in lieing to the judge. They may know something about those things but it doesn't mean they can teach them and it certainly doesn't mean you will learn from what they teach. Every expert on education agrees, all the research returns the same result, learning takes place through meaningful repetition of the fundamentals over a long period of time. The actor cannot learn anything in three days or weeks or months. It takes years to learn to act and the teacher has to know what he or she is teaching from practical professional experience, not from academics. (Don't even get me started on why a college degree in acting doesn't mean you can act.)
It's the same old catch: you can't get work without experience and you can't get experience without work. You are not likely to get an agent until you have secured your own acting jobs but very few professional acting jobs are open to those who have yet to secure representation. You can't join the unions until you have a job but you can't get a job without belonging to the union. Like every actor before you, you have to work at getting work. You get a few jobs as an extra on a set, get your vouchers signed, and you can get in the union. Once you're in the union you look legitimate to agents. Once you have an agent you look legitimate to casting directors.
The absolute truth is if you can act you are likely to get the jobs you are right for. Union affiliations, agency representation, even stardom, all take a back seat to learning to act. There are those who are well connected, remarkably beautiful and gifted with wonderful personalities who never have to do any of this. They just walk in the room, get an agent or a job (and are immediately Taft-Hartley'd into the Union), and are given their stars on Hollywood Blvd. Those people are probably not reading this article. The rest of us have to learn to act.