You Ask…I Answer – How Do I Counsel New Graduates?

Question: Recently I have been pressed into counseling recent grads who are not getting picked up by firms and who are terrified about getting behind in paying back their student loans. A number of these grads don’t feel confident enough to even consider a solo practice because of the pressure of loan repayment. They are also concerned that if they do try their own practice, when the economy eventually turns around, firms still won’t be interested in them as new hires. It seems their thinking is that firms prefer to train their newbies and folks who opened their own firms should be viewed as competitors rather than newbies to the profession.”

While I received this paragraph in the context of a much larger e-mail on a variety of topics, it jumped out at me because there are many career counselors and professors and more seasoned lawyers being asked this very question by soon-to-be lawyers.  I’d like to inject some realism into the thinking of these soon-to-be lawyers:

Plan for solo practice, not the Big Law job and the Big Law job opportunity may present itself.

To answer you regarding this particular thinking, the new grads are worrying about the wrong issue and their thinking is incorrect.  They should plan for solo practice BECAUSE of the economy and by doing so, they are MORE attractive to the new firm emerging out of this chaos.  Why?  The new firms are going to be (or should be) more interested in self-starters and someone who doesn’t have to be hand-held through any process, who can make rain independently and reduce the large firm’s initial training costs.  The new ‘associate’ will have to be a genuine profit-center in the newest sense, not in the oldest sense of just grunt work and racking up billable hours, but by generating business from the beginning.

The other practical reality is if they are going to start a business it can’t be half-hearted and with the idea they are biding time until ‘THE JOB’ comes along.  In a recent Wall Street Journal article on all micropreneurs, they emphasize temporary thinking about your venture  is a recipe for failure.

If a(lawyer) views the condition as temporary, it’s almost a guarantee that however long it lasts, it won’t go well. Unless you think about it as a job itself—requiring time, investment, thought—you won’t get much of a return. Waiting for business to find you is not something successful (lawyers) do. Clients know a halfhearted attempt when they see one.

They have to act as if this WILL be their professional future and make it work for them.  Then if an opportunity presents itself, which it does often when one is in the self-starter mode, they are more prepared to consider the pros and cons of employment or partnership or ‘of counsel’ opportunities. They are seen as peers in the profession even if there is an experience-gap, because regardless the experience, they can be across the table in an adversarial role representing a client.

Final thoughts: Do not go into solo practice if you see starting your own practice as biding time until ‘THE JOB’ comes along.  This will actually harm you professionally as both potential clients and peers will be able to read your attitude immediately. You will be unattractive to clients and those who might have considered you for employment, partnership, referrals  or other opportunities.

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8 comments on “You Ask…I Answer – How Do I Counsel New Graduates?

  • Your points are valid, but you didn’t address the real worry: student loan payments.

    Solo practice is not a steady source of income. There are some student loan deferments available while the new grad is building a practice, but they aren’t unlimited (private loans only offer 6 months) and they just push the pain down the road, often leading to higher payments later.

    If you want new grads to be able to consider building their skills as a solo, I would think you would be a strong supporter of some sort of relief for heavily indebted students.

    • Liz, I always think about the loans! And you assume incorrectly I don’t support debt relief. However, having the obligation is not going to change the lack of other options available to those with a legal degree. Many people work within their loan obligations. Yes, private loans are a challenge and it is one of the problems with the financial aid offices of school. They want their payment and don’t fully explain the obligations and the time frame to satisfy those obligations upon graduation. They push students into private loans. I experienced it myself but fought back and made them wait until I got the federally backed loans. It might have been the circumstances or the counselor, but I prevailed and benefited from a loan program which extends 30 years and is forgivable at the end of the term (taken as income and taxable that year. It is also modifiable for hardship, unemployment and more.) However, I do believe there will be a breaking point and other options will present themselves. But this begs the question, no jobs and looming student loans? Do you try to practice or simply do nothing within your profession because of the debt?

  • Susan,

    If a law student really wants the Big Law job but the opportunity hasn’t yet presented itself, at what point do you recommend he or she start considering a solo practice? In other words, how long should they pursue the Big Law job before considering other options?

  • Julie,

    There is no ‘amount of time’. Quite frankly, if during the 3rd year of law school there are no nibbles, then start building your solo practice in your 3rd year. Building a solo practice and doing interviews are not mutually exclusive. But waiting and waiting for a job and nothing comes, you’ve wasted a lot of valuable time not building your solo practice!!

  • I understand the concern about student loans. Really. I get it. But there are no jobs out there anyway. At least with a solo practice it’s some work rather than no work. What am I missing?

    • Deborah, you’re not missing anything. Learning the ins and outs of building a solo practice never harms you and doesn’t preclude you from looking for work. In fact, if you are fortunate to get employment, having learned what is involved in becoming your own profit-center and self-contained business only stands you in good stead within employment. If the job doesn’t last you are only that much further ahead if you decide to go solo.

  • Susan,

    I know a lot of students who are thrown into option of solo practice in this current job market. As a third year law student I’m actually looking forward to starting my own solo practice. It has long been my aspiration to have my own business. I am pretty confident with how I’ve prepared for expenses, marketing, etc. My main fear is the practical aspect of starting as a solo fresh out of law school! I hope to be mainly a transactional attorney (wills, trusts, bankruptcies, etc) as I do not have a very confrontational personality, but I am somewhat apprehensive in my lack of experience with the practical aspects of lawyering. Do you have any advice for building a library of form documents, tactfully explaining the issue of candor to new clients, or anything else in the practical realm of lawyering fresh out of law school?

    Thank you!

    • Amanda, Thank you for your comment. It would take more than a comment in response to addrerss your questions. It’s also precisely why I created Solo Practice University, to provide that place for education and comfort. I am also contemplating teaching my ‘How to Hang a Shingle Right Out of Law School’ Class at SPU. The jury is still out, though :-)

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