On Solo Practice, Rankings, and “Real” Lawyers

When I read Professor Muller’s blog post that Susan referred to in Why Law School Professor’s Rankings Are Worse Than USNWR, from April 16, 2013, I decided to add my two-cents worth to the conversation.

In 2003, I was working as in-house IP counsel for a large multinational manufacturing company.  We were selling some companies, and I spent most of that summer working out of the Manhattan offices of the top ten NYC law firm we hired to handle the deals.

Late one night, another in-house lawyer and I were going through documents.  A few young attorneys from the firm (1-3 years out of law school) were having a conversation.

It started with: “These “company” lawyers would never get hired at our law firm.”  They proceeded to say we were incompetent and stupid by virtue of the fact that we didn’t go to their law schools and weren’t trained at their firm.  They concluded the conversation with “Only dumb attorneys who can’t hack it in a real law firm go in-house.”

We were not meant to participate in the conversation.  This was a conversation we were meant to hear.  They knew who we were, who we worked for, and that we were in the room.

Never mind the fact that I had to correct their sloppy work or that a “senior patent associate” had never drafted or filed a patent and didn’t know the difference between patent applications and granted patents.

They were smug and arrogant.  And they wanted my colleague and me to know they didn’t think we were in their league.

Neither their lack of discretion nor what they said surprised me.  It was not the first time I had been told that I was “less of a lawyer”.  The only difference was it usually came from someone higher up the food chain.

I know and have always known since the day I chose to attend the University of Maine School of Law because of the financial aid package over better ranked schools that a hierarchy exists in the law.  (I guess I was naïve in thinking that saving $10,000+ in tuition per year was more important.)

I’ve been told many times in my career, and always in a blunt and candid manner, that I didn’t go to the right school or am not the product of a great law firm.  Starting my career in-house meant that I was the product of no law firm, a cardinal sin in the eyes of many lawyers, including those of my last boss.

Those young lawyers knew nothing about me.  They didn’t know where I trained or went to law school.  (This was pre-LinkedIn and Facebook.)  Maybe it was my Jimmy Choo-less feet that gave me away, but they knew I wasn’t one of them, and their contempt applied to everyone outside their elite status.

The truth is a lot of lawyers at many levels feel the same way as those young lawyers and that attitude starts with the law schools.

Law schools care a lot about status.  Rankings matter.  They matter so much that schools are willing to fudge the numbers to move up a few spots on the list.

One of the metrics determining rank is how many of the graduates are employed 9 months after graduation and employment is always defined as being employed by others.  It’s independent validation of your greatness when law firms hire your graduates.  “Our graduates are sought out by top law firms,” reads so much better on the brochure then “Our graduates are working hard for themselves.”  One sounds prestigious; the other sounds downright scary to the vast majority of prospective law students.

It doesn’t help the rank-obsessed school when its graduates pursue solo practice.

And the obsession with rank trickles down to the law firms.  Firm rankings determine who gets hired, what firms and attorneys can charge, and what lawyers get paid.  It can determine the quality of your clients.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we are a profession driven by rank and our position on the totem pole.  Unfortunately, solo practice doesn’t rank very high.  For some, it’s a symbol that you’ve failed.  You couldn’t get hired by a “real” law firm or you couldn’t hack it in a “real” law firm.  They could never imagine anyone choosing to be in solo practice.

And this attitude will endure because there will always be lawyers who care about such things.

To those lawyers neither the quality of your work nor how much you’re helping your clients solve their legal problems matters.  For them it is all about rank and status.

But I don’t care about such things, and neither should you.

I didn’t care when I chose a lesser debt burden in 1995 or when I declared that I didn’t want to work for a law firm in 1998.  I didn’t care in 2003 or any of the other times I’ve been made to feel that I wasn’t a “real” lawyer.

The truth is I did care when I started my firm in 2009.  My confidence had been shaken after a couple of years out of the profession.  I couldn’t stop thinking: What would my former in-house colleagues think of me and my decision to go solo?  They’ll view me as a failure for sure.

But I got over that.  I realized that it didn’t matter what they thought about my decision.  The only thing that mattered was how I felt about my decision.

Honestly, who cares if all those status-hungry, rank-obsessed a$$es think we’re not “real” lawyers?  We know better.

You can’t control what other people think of you so don’t try.  Just do what’s right for you.

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®.

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