This is part #1 of a debate I will have with myself about whether a lawyer should work a standard job and practice solo at the same time…you probably want to know why this debate is happening…here is the story: I recently accepted a job with AT&T as a Senior Contract Manager responsible, in part, for negotiating contracts for mobile technology software. It is a remarkable opportunity and, though I did not aggressively seek out the job, one came right to me…one I could not refuse. As a result, on Monday June 27th 2011 – for the first time since January of 1990 (my first job out of undergrad) – I will go to work for a large corporation in a tall building. It is the exact opposite of the kind of work I have done for the last 20 plus years and a surprising change to the way I will practice law. Since my background is largely in debate – I debated as a high school student and university student, coached debate as a graduate student, and have published debate research of various types since 1993 – it makes sense to have a debate on the question of whether a lawyer can and should continue to practice law while working a standard job. Just like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, I will play both parts of this debate – this month I will debate the Affirmative (DO continue to practice while working the standard job…OR you do not have to choose between the two) and next month I will debate the Negative (DO NOT continue to practice while working the standard job…OR you have to choose between the two). There may not be a winner but I hope these ideas help you consider how you will practice law as a solo and what constraints you will impose on yourself and your practice.
Resolved: a solo lawyer should continue to practice law while employed in a standard job.
Life has a way of taking hold of you and saying “I am in control…” – that is exactly what happened when in April of 2011 one of my former law classmates called and said his group at AT&T was looking to hire more than a half dozen new lawyers for contract negotiation teams – advanced negotiation of very complicated contracts for all variety of technological solutions from software to hardware and everything in between. Because he seemed very happy in his job, we had dinner one evening and talked about what the job entailed…the more he talked, the better it sounded. I met with his boss’s boss, had a phone interview, actually applied, got an offer (a GREAT offer), did the background check (passed!), and what I thought would be a life as a solo practice lawyer (excellent life) has taken a detour into corporate America. Life is in charge.
I have had a great experience as a solo practice lawyer so far – good clients, trial successes, a big case settled for a pittance, and the future looks good. So, what reason would I have to change courses now? That is a very good question – I am glad you asked.
I want to start with two observations that will help you see how I view situations like this –  I never shop hungry – the best time to look for anything is when you do not need it. My wife and I always eat before we go to Sam’s Club (discount club just like CostCo) so we do not come back with $200 worth of ice cream and jellybeans. If you are not hungry when you walk in, you make better buying decisions. This rule applies to finding a date for the prom (pretty girls never respond to desperation) and finding a job. The truth is that I was not looking for a job…and that is exactly how I found this one. Ironic, yes?  I have no fear of change and never question bold decisions. I have run my own business way too long to wonder whether I can trust my instincts. This does NOT mean I never make mistakes – this means I accept the fact that mistakes will happen and my judgment is good enough to make good decisions the majority of the time. Delay is death…so I make decisions quickly. If something is not working, I change. If you see a good opportunity, grab it. I saw this good opportunity and I grabbed it.
I will embrace this new job negotiating massive contracts and will continue to practice law on the side. Now, I present my warrants for continuing to practice as a solo while I work this standard job.
- WHAT BETTER TRAINING IS THERE? If there is a company that does bigger, more complicated, and more industry-defining contracts in communications IT than AT&T, I have never heard of them. This is a great opportunity to learn the technical side of contract negotiation from a group of experts and refine my contract negotiating skills in the process. Assuming I do not spend the rest of my professional life in this position (yet to be determined), this might be the best paid training program ever.
- WHAT BETTER RISK REDUCTION IS THERE? The only down side to solo practice to me is the risk implicit in every day and every bit of work. This new position –bringing home the bacon – allows me to dissipate the risk of being only solo. As a result, I can practice with less pressure and do better work in the process. I can handle the stress – I have always handled stress well – but I always do better work when I can take a patient approach. Reducing risk allows patience instead of panic.
- WHAT BETTER WAY TO FOCUS ON THE PRACTICE AREAS THAT MOST INTEREST ME? Whenever anybody asks me what type of law I practice, I am quick to say “…whatever law pays the bills…” As a result, I take almost any case and any task that brings in money (as long as it is not malpractice). The advantage is that I am bringing in money and doing pretty well early on. The down side is that I am spending a lot of time on law that is revenue generating but not in my interest areas (business law & copyrights/trademarks). This new position allows me to be more discerning in what work I accept, spend more time learning the practice areas I truly enjoy, and focus my efforts for the long-term. This does not mean I am not able to execute the occasional will or send the odd demand letter – it does mean I am not forced to take whatever comes in the door. With more income comes the ability to make careful selections.
- DO NOT UNDERSELL COMFORT! I will admit to you that getting through law school while having other responsibilities was a long haul with a lot of sacrifice. I went part-time so it was four years of struggle (much imposed on my wife who was unconditionally supportive of my ambition even when it came to the insanity of law study). It is going to be nice to be able to deliver some of the comfort to her that she gave to me all through law school – it is the very least I can do. Besides, happy lawyers are better lawyers.
- FREE TO LEAVE ANYTIME I LIKE! This new position is not prison…Texas is an at-will employment state so they can fire me or I can leave at any time. This creates an environment where I have an incentive to do good work (not too difficult for me…) and the company has an incentive to treat me well (which I hear from contacts they do well…). Still, if it turns out to be a bad fit OR a better opportunity comes along OR full-time law practice just screams my name, I can go – anytime I like. I do not suspect that will happen soon but this is far from a prison sentence.
- I HAVE FAITH! I am not a super religious person – raised Roman Catholic – but I have a great deal of faith that all things (good and bad) happen for a reason. This job has not given rise to any concern or suspicion that something bad is about to happen. Seriously, if there is one thing I have developed running my own business for nearly 20 years, it is a pretty refined bullshit-o-meter. Nothing about this seems to be a problem to me. Even if it is a problem, I can escape (see #5) and enjoy whatever benefit I gained to that point. That sounds like a no-loser to me. I have faith and regard the experience with AT&T (mostly romance but still…) as a great privilege.
- I AM STILL A LAWYER! My former law classmate who was the connection that made this job happen for me lamented when he started this job that he was not really a lawyer and that other real lawyers would look down on him. I could not disagree more. Only your imagination limits the ways in which you may practice law. My wife, a licensed architect of more than 20 years, does not draw buildings but, instead, works as a consultant for building product manufacturers (currently the world’s largest hardware holding company). She is STILL an architect and uses the skills of an architect to do her job. In a similar fashion, not all lawyers go to court or argue cases in front of the Supreme Court. What could be more lawyer-type work than negotiating massive contracts? Disregarding limits and predefinitions is one of the strengths of solo practice lawyers – I intend to make this skill work for me in this new position as well.
- BENEFITS OUTWEIGH THE COSTS AND SACRIFICES! This is “…one of those offers…” I cannot refuse (see great lines from the Godfather). Further, the costs in term of what I have to give up (full time litigation for example – which I love but it will always be there…) are dwarfed by the benefits in terms of security, skill training, and flexibility to practice to type of law I want to practice. I learned so much about litigation while clerking and handling my own cases this year that I can safely detour for this opportunity. A return to practice sooner or later (this may be the last job I ever have OR it may be a few years sort of thing) does not cost me much more than waiting until the age of 46 to become licensed in the first place. I am lucky to have the advantage of a long and successful professional life that allows me to view decisions like this less in terms of apocalyptic reality and more in terms of all benefit and very little cost.
- ONE DOOR LEADS TO OTHER DOORS! This new position is inevitably going to lead to other opportunities – either as an end in itself (which remains to be seen) or to opportunities either inside AT&T or outside AT&T as the skills I develop broaden my professional horizons. The former option would be fine as the group of people I am going to work with are exceptionally skilled and are doing great work. The latter option is a way for me to bring my skills to AT&T and, in turn, develop skills that are marketable as I suggest above. Unless this life is something different than I imagine, this door will – eventually – lead to other doors. That may be a return to solo practice exclusively or a segue to another cool situation. In any case, I win. How great is that?
- THE PRACTICE AND THE JOB DO NOT COMPETE! Most people view a choice between two alternatives as a binary – that need not be the case if you think creatively. I choose to see this situation as an add-on – another advantage to doing what I want to do. You may choose either a standard job OR a solo practice OR you may choose to do both. Since enough has never been enough for me, I chose to get a law degree even though I could have well succeeded in any number of fields without a law license. The same rule applies here. In fact, when interviewing with AT&T, one gentleman asked me “…won’t you miss practicing law…?” and I said “…No, because this is practicing law…” That is the overwhelming net benefit – by doing both well (doing the great work that both deserve), I get the benefits of both.
This new position is, in so many ways, the ideal way to freedom – exceptional skill development with a fine group of skilled professionals, dissipating the risk of solo practice while bringing in excellent reliable money (which helps fund the practice!), the freedom to practice law the way I want, and the no-risk route to other opportunities. Besides, you do not have to choose – it is totally possible – indeed beneficial from a practice focus standpoint – to work both a job and solo practice. I call that the ideal recipe for solo practice. If it gets better, someone is going to have to tell me how. If you allow yourself to do it all, you can really have it all; you are the only person holding you back. For me, I give myself permission.
NEXT MONTH: See the Negative arguments – then you get to vote for the winner…me, I still believe it is a personal decision.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.