Since I am a brand new lawyer, I keep saying the “season has just started.” However, in many ways, the season started when I was in law school – the clock started ticking from the first day of orientation. This is the time you start acquiring the skills and acumen you need to succeed in practice. Even at this early point in my practice, it is clear to me that I was lucky enough to learn some things that are invaluable now that the regular season has begun.
Because this is a new column, I want to take a moment to lay the course ‐ where are we now and where will we go? In future columns, I intend to speak carefully as I go about how to transition from law school to solo practice – it is a very personal story but I am hopeful some readers will benefit from my successes and errors. For now, I will spend this column on the last baccalaureate view – a focused treatment of the skill sets you can develop during law school that will help you make the leap to solo practice with confidence.
I view law school – and viewed it while I was there – as the pre‐season where you can make a few mistakes. This is the time to refine skills and learn new skills – you will have much less time to do this once you enter practice so you had better do it when you have the chance. Almost nobody remembers the passes you dropped in preseason but, come time for the regular season and playoffs, one error or missed block can end your season. I am doing well so far in the early part of the regular season so I want to share some of what I did during the pre‐season to get where I am.
You will find the law school environment a great place to get free coaching – when you get out, the coaching gets a great deal more expensive and erratic. I was lucky that my law school faculty was largely composed of lawyers who excelled in private practice – in a wide variety of practice areas, firm types, and areas of the country. You should take advantage of this free coaching.
- PROFESSORS especially adjunct professors, are a great source of advice. They have an endless supply of war stories and tales of mistakes they made that will help you stay on the right path.
- Career services was an excellent resource at my school – they are not sitting there with the “big book of jobs”…they can help you network properly, get internships that will help you acquire key skills, and generally be your therapist. I advise you to visit them every day. (I visited them so often, the admin used to save cherry Starburst candies for me – I figured if anything good came up, they should think of me first!).
- PRACTICUMS AND CLINICS – I advise you to seek these out – they are an invaluable source of insight into skills that real lawyers need to survive. It’s better to take these classes later in law school when you can digest the information better. Also, don’t take these classes to the exclusion of classes that will help you prepare for the bar exam. (I took both Secured Transactions and Criminal Law Practicum…each serves a different purpose!). Law Clinics will allow you to represent real clients in real cases in real courts – in Texas, the “Associate Bar Member” program is a great opportunity. See if your area has one like it.
- CLASSMATES – I spent a lot of time talking with my classmates to hear about their experiences. They will tell you about their past work life (many have legal experience before law school), their experience with internships, and their experiences early in practice. Your classmates are your future colleagues so it is important to get to know them – decide who you can work with (trust) – and make sure to keep in touch after law school. (I finally joined Facebook for this purpose alone – more than 80% of my 1L class is on Facebook!).
- BAG LUNCH IN COURT – One of the best things I did after my 1L year was spend a couple afternoons a week in local courts. You cannot eat in court (not even Tics Tacs in some courts…) but you are welcome to sit in and watch anything other than jury selection (and, if you ask the judge ahead of time, he will let you watch that too!). Watch these hearing and get real experience in all types of motions, docket calls, last minute restraining orders, open/closed pleas, and all sorts of other things. This is the legal version of watching a hit‐and‐run versus somebody telling you what it is in a classroom – practical learning at its best. (Moreover, judges rarely have observers – I got to chat with more than a few at the bench after hearings because they were amazed that anyone actually wanted to watch what was going on…!).
Even though the law school resources are exceptional, you have to take personal responsibility for acquiring the skills you need to survive in solo practice. If you take extra time to seek out resources and pay attention (not in the “classroom take notes” way…but in the “learning it” way), you will acquire skills that will serve you well down the road.
- OSMOSIS – it might sound silly but some of the skills you need will just sink in naturally. I got the reputation during one of my summers as the “Sponge” – I would observe something going on (like a plea negotiation) and then ask as many questions as came to my mind. I soaked it all in so now it seems natural. You cannot learn everything this way but you can make great progress. For example, if you have a criminal client that you know will eventually want a plea agreement, some DA’s will offer you a better deal before submission to the grand jury because you will save them the time and effort of preparing and presenting to the grand jury. You have to learn lessons like this yourself.
- PRACTICE GUIDES– Have you been to the library yet? I do not mean to research a brief or stare at the endless rows of reporters; I mean to find out what they have that can help you in practice. In Texas, we are lucky to have practice guides for many of the state specific practice areas (Dorsaneo’s Texas Litigation Guide is a staple resource). You can also find practice guides for Federal areas (Nimmer on Copyright is the bible of copyrights). These resources are expensive – too expensive for many solos to purchase – but your library has them and you should continue visiting your school or local law libraries to find them and use them. They will not have every answer but they will save you tons of hours…find out where they are now. I promise you will thank me later. (FYI – In a later column, I am going to discuss the budget for a new solo – what you have to have and what you do not have to have…practice guides and electronic research will be an important part of this discussion – stay tuned!).
- GET BY WITH HELP FROM YOUR TEAMMATES – I spoke briefly above about using your classmates (and letting them use you) as a resource. They will be part of your team‐coaching resource but they will also be part of your self‐coaching resource. Find out what your classmates have done right and wrong – learn from their experiences. You will find after law school when you select a practice area, you may need help from your classmates in their practice area (to answer a small question for a client). You can return the favor when they have a question about your practice area. Refer clients to each other. This is a real network.
At risk of stretching an analogy too far, I think about my plan to go solo after law school as a “Playbook Secret” that was only for the team. The question is who to tell, who to tell only sometimes, and who to never tell. You will find that not everyone will be supportive of your plan to go solo and whom you tell is an important part of gathering your team around you and making sure you have as many fans as possible.
- DO TELL – Your family and support network should know about your plan to go solo up front; keep telling them as you go along through school and make sure they know it will be an extra (financial) burden early on. When you start focusing on particular practice areas, make sure they know so they can spread the word. (After all, your friends and family will be your best marketers early on…). Your family and friends will generally be supportive no matter what you decide to do – just make sure they know the myth of a bag of money at the end the rainbow is just that…a myth.
- MAYBE TELL – Some of the folks at the law school are receptive to your solo plan and some are not. One of my favorite law school professors said that “…going solo right out of law school is malpractice…” He may have been right in some cases but if you are careful about when to refer out a complicated case or seek help from a bar association mentor, you can avoid any risks. (By the way, I still need a New York lawyer for a will prep client – does anyone want this referral?). The career services people might need to know, but only in the “I am considering solo…” context. You will need career services for referrals for internships and the like so it is better not to cut off any options too early.
- DO NOT TELL – When you are interviewing for internships, do not tell them your plan is to go solo after law school. Take my word on this. (See my first column for the story about the Tarrant County DA interview). Now, this does not mean you should lie and tell them “…this is my dream job…” – you can just say this is a strong interest area and you are trying to get as much exposure as possible. When you are in an internship, keep the solo plan to yourself but DO work very hard and make them happy they offered the position to you (those who come after you will thank you). Pay attention to every detail – office management, billing, discovery, drafting, procedure, politics, etc. Keeping your solo plan to yourself will help you observe these processes and acquire skills you can use down the road.
To a large extent – even though I view law as a practice among friends – you are alone in practice (that is what “solo” means, right?). You sign clients, handle cases, conduct hearings, and go to trial ALL on your own. You can benefit from the support of colleagues (many of them here at SPU) and other resources but you alone are where the buck stops. Do not take too many risks too soon lest you risk a grievance. Call on friends or more experienced colleagues for help – better to refer out a case than risk doing something to harm a client. (In later columns, I will talk about a few such referrals and how they helped me make friendships with area lawyers, avoid harm to my client, and reinforce the good judgment that will serve me for years to come.).
I am making the transition to practice now – I can speak to all of the comments I have made above from personal experience. The beginning is a stressful and very exciting time – you get to do all the things you dreamed about and worked hard to prepare for.
This is the end of the beginning – from time to time down the road, I may remind you of something you should do – or I did – during law school to prepare for solo practice. For the most part, though, everything from here on out will focus on how I am doing what I am doing every day – getting clients, managing schedules, acquiring skills, selecting practice areas, and the like. While law school was the game, it was just the pre‐season. As a licensed attorney, the regular season and post‐season are in play and every match‐up is a must‐win.
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®.