(We’re excited to introduce our newest columnist, Haley Austin, a real Second Career Ninja who will share her experiences starting law school a little later in life, the challenges and the differences when you go solo after already having a foot in the working world…or in her case, both feet stomping!)
The decision to go solo was made before I went to law school. My strict life plan had already determined that Big Law was not practical for my personality and goals. That journey consisted of a stint in the Army, starting my family and leaving law school with minimal to no debt. Having done all of that before law school, I landed a first year seat alongside 140 students ten years my junior, all competing to be number one in our class and fighting for the same 70 slots in the area’s top firms. Impractical is an understatement.
First, I was coming to the table with a hoard of ‘distracting’ liabilities- kids, a mortgage, ten years of entrepreneurial business experience, and common sense. My competitors were fresh out of undergrad, many having never worked a real job, untainted by corporate America, and some still living at home or in their first apartment. They were Big Law’s dream drones. They were the blank slates that Big Law could throw in the library for hours on end to research and write and keep their unwanted opinions to themselves. I was Big Law’s nightmare, and I would have to be deprogrammed and then re-programmed to the Big Law way. Big Law is not structured for first years to come in with maturity and life experience.
Second, I learned early on that my career services office (CSO) was not designed for me. Law school career services are not set up for the second-career lawyer, or those deciding to pursue the law later in life. CSO pushes high grades, internships and judicial clerkships, all in an attempt to ready you for those on-campus interviews with the top firms- assuming that’s what every attorney wants to do. When I asked about alternative careers for grads, my office had to ‘get back to me.’ If I didn’t want to work for a firm (or government office), did I want to be a non-practicing lawyer? CSO was not fully prepared to assist me in going solo, or even finding employment outside of the environment they touted. It was daunting and depressing. While my fellow students were interviewing, I was attending my kids’ games or parent teacher conferences. While they were at ‘bar review’ (the class meet-up at the local bar), I had mommy and me classes and a household to run. And career services did not know how to help me.
Ultimately, I had to find my own resources. I started researching how to be a solo in my second year. I read as many blogs as I could including Solo Practice University’s blog. I found How to Start and Build a Law Practice by Jay Foonberg and Solo By Choice by Carolyn Elefant. They became my bibles. Midway through my third year, I had drafted my law firm business plan, named it and designed a logo. I had a preliminary client list, set my practice areas and researched my fee scale based on my location and competitors rates. I spent the last half of that year listening to Gerry Spence on CD during my hour and half long commutes to and from school, preparing for my time as a trial lawyer. I was ready to go.
Recognizing very early that my situation was different had a big impact on how I addressed law school and my plans for my law career. I had already successfully started and run two companies and knew that I had the skills to run a business. I also recognized that I could not rely on law school or the CSO to teach me how to run a law firm or have a solo practice. I had to find my own resources, my own mentors, and use what I already knew to be successful as a solo attorney. More importantly, I was not discouraged by what I couldn’t find in the resources that were provided to me.
Most second-career lawyers do their research before starting law school, but planning for after law school is too often overlooked in this process. Had I known then what I learned during school, I would have planned sooner for my time behind the curve. I would have leveraged my contacts sooner, written my business plan, found and read the blogs and books earlier.
Fortunately for me, my first-career did the planning for me. Having spent my ten years pre-law running a real estate company, I had years of clients and contacts with whom I had developed strong relationships and a high trust factor. I had clients before I graduated and took the bar. My old clients needed a real estate attorney, and I was about to be a real estate and business attorney. In my spare time, my love of music and the arts found me managing up and coming artists and, low and behold, they needed lawyers too!
I opened my office the morning after I received my bar results and I had six paying clients by the end of the business day.
Your second career as a lawyer does not have to be strife with uncertainty and hardship. Instead of thinking you are behind the starting line, consider yourself as having a head start- despite what Big Law tells you in those interviews. You are leaving law school with something your fellow law students and competitors don’t have- life experience. While this is not a particularly desirable skill set for Big Law, it is invaluable to you as a solo. Tell your friends, colleagues and clients that you are going to law school. Let them know that in a couple of years, you will be able to extend them legal services in addition to what you already provide to them. They will be excited about this added value you bring to their business, life, and family- and they will wait for you. You already have a client roster based on trust and your hard work. You need only to add to it with new clients. The biggest factor in selecting and staying with an attorney is trust.
Keep in touch with these clients during law school. Let them know how you’re doing and frequently inquire about what is going on in their life and business. This will help you tailor your learning and training strategies to meet their needs. It also provides you some guidance. Instead of engaging judicial clerkships that will not serve your practice, get a part time job at a small firm where you can learn your practice area-even if it doesn’t pay. Instead of spending hours researching all the partners in that Big Law firm to prepare for an interview for a job you don’t want (and likely won’t get), take a practical or practice area class like trial techniques or entertainment law. These courses had a small number of students, but were invaluable to what I do now. Additionally, they are typically taught by a practitioner in that field who can become valuable colleagues, mentors and referral sources. I remain in touch with those professors and continue to work with one in my daily practice. There is more to be learned from them than schmoozing with first years and partners during a summer associate position. I know this because I did both.
Before realizing the CSO trap, I followed all the steps they laid out. I worked a summer associate position after my first year and clerked for a judge and worked for the city attorney’s office during my second. While they were all great experiences, looking back, there were more fruitful ways I could have spent that time. Be proactive, know your aims, and plan ahead.
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®.