November 29 2010
Why You Shouldn’t Start A Solo Law Practice Straight Out Of Law School
I gave some serious thought to starting my own solo law practice right out of law school; I’m glad I chose not to.
Of course today I have my own small law firm and even write a blog about my journey of building a Chicago-based solo practice but I’m glad I waited to start my own firm until roughly 4 years after I was graduated from law school. I’m a better lawyer today because I DID NOT start my practice right out of law school.
I recently concluded a 6-year legal dispute regarding real estate owned by an older woman and her adult son that was very bitter and contentious…much worse than any divorce case I’ve ever been involved with. And my opposing counsel for virtually the entire case was a gentleman who had graduated law school the same year I had but he had started a practice straight out of law school…and it showed!
He had never been grounded in the “lawyer basics” that were grounded into me by my first boss. I’d get these pleadings that were utterly baseless, had no chance of being granted, and simply wasted everyone’s time. The case probably took a year more than it should have due to these wrong-minded pleadings. He had to bring in another attorney to do depositions in the case. At trial the degree to which his witnesses were coached in how to answer questions on the witness stand was comical. And sadly I know he had serious money problems with his client that probably would have been avoided had he seen how a more seasoned lawyer ran her or his practice.
Of course there are bad lawyers of all experience levels just like there are bad plumbers and bad doctors but this guy was a generally good and earnest person, I just think that he did not know what he did not know. One big discovery I’ve made in 8 years of active lawyering is that there remains a ton I do not know (and shouldn’t know) but within the broad scope of my practice I DO KNOW HOW/WHERE TO FIND ANSWERS. I think it’s the big 4: a) the statutes that govern my practice areas; b) Code of Civil Procedure; c) Supreme Court Rules; and, d) local court rules in the county/circuit in which you practice.
The opposing counsel in the above example was never drilled in lawyer basics and I’m not convinced this deficiency won’t hinder him for many years to come.
Of course in today’s lawyer job market many new lawyers won’t have a choice about starting their own practice.
Thinking back to my own fun times as a 3L at Southern Illinois University School of Law (SIU), I was going to start my own practice until an unexpected job opportunity a month or two before graduation changed my plans (the job opportunity actually presented itself as I was meeting with people to learn about running a law practice). I vividly recall printing out hundreds of pages of practice management literature using my free Lexis/Westlaw subscriptions. SIU had and has a great legal clinic serving the elderly and I recall driving around southern Illinois with my professor and endlessly picking his brain about his background in private practice.
Knowing what I know now, if you are starting a practice straight out of law school I’d suggest having two mentors/coaches in place who you can ‘Go To’ regularly (I don’t mean just attend a seminar or two and forget about it…you’re going to need ongoing help and often urgently with a deadline). You need a mentor for legal substance & and a mentor or business coach for the business of law. I have these two mentors today, just entering year nine as an Illinois lawyer, but think they’re especially critical for the newbie. I’d bet that finding the mentor for substantive legal issues won’t be too hard; many bar associations have mentor programs. The business mentor is more challenging because I’ve found that both law schools and bar associations don’t address the “business of law” component too well. Many state bar associations have a Law Practice Management Advisor or something like that who might be a useful resource (sadly Illinois has no such thing). There is a business niche of private lawyer coach-type persons out there where you may have to look.
Think long and hard about your first post-law school professional experience; the impact might be larger than you think!