Reflections On Being a Main Street Lawyer

This post was written by Victoria Vuletich.

Victoria Vuletich has spent her entire career in the legal profession, working in a wide variety of capacities. Her favorite work is helping people who are “stuck” or uncertain about their current work in the law. Victoria created to serve as a trusted resource for lawyers navigating the restructuring of the legal profession, which will only continue to accelerate. She is also a member of the faculty of the Grand Rapids, MI campus of Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

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Main StreetIt was the third largest law firm in Denver. Byron “Wizzer” White came out of the firm and it was the firm Gary Hart retreated to after the demise of his presidential ambitions. The walls were paneled with wood and the view of the mountains from our 40th floor offices was breathtaking.  Every month there was a team meeting, complete with elegant box lunches.  And that was just for the paralegals! Of which I was one.

It was while working at this firm that I decided: “I can do that” and promptly enrolled in law school.  L.A. Law was all the rage when I went to law school. Despite being a paralegal and knowing the gritty reality of law practice, I confess that the show still influenced me.  I assumed that upon graduating I would work in a big firm.  I entertained vague notions of wearing elegant clothes, enjoying glamorous working conditions and dating handsome, sexy men like Harry Hamlin and Jimmy Smits.  (I know, I know, think today:  Brad Pitt or Jake Gyllenhaal)

The reality check came slowly and, I confess, hard, over the next three years.  By the time I graduated it became clear that I would not achieve the ultimate “success” as defined by many in law school and the legal profession  – BigLaw – and I had to redefine success, on my terms.  And I had absolutely no clue about where to, how to, or what to, practice.

Then the most remarkable thing happened – though it sure didn’t look like “success” at the time.  I ended up in Owosso, Michigan,  married to the local cable guy (who was very handsome, though) and driving the same old beat up Nissan Sentra.  My assumption, still, was that I would practice in one of the three larger cities 45 minutes down the road. But no, I ended up in a small firm on Main Street in Owosso. Literally – our address was “301 Main Street.”   And you know what? It was absolutely the best thing that could have happened to me.  I was blessed with a fabulous mentor. I got oodles of court experience, interesting cases and really learned what it meant to be a good lawyer.

I went from lunches at chic downtown restaurants to the Ladies Salad Luncheons at the local Methodist Church.  (Both wonderful, but very different.)  I learned how privileged I am, as many people I encountered had never been on an airplane.  Some had never been to another state.  And I learned to not talk about anybody because I discovered that everybody is related to everybody by blood or marriage.  The rhythms of my life began to align more closely with the earth – busy during planting and harvesting season and a little more quiet during summer and winter.  The resumption of the church suppers and Knights of Columbus fish frys meant one less meal I had to prepare. One day sitting behind the wheel at an intersection, I saw a gleaming black Mercedes following a very slow tractor chugging along in front of me. The dichotomy of that picture really sums up what life was like in Owosso.  Both famers and doctors were my clients.  And line workers at the factory, barely scraping by, and hard working second generation immigrants who had saved their way into a tidy nest egg.

Yep, I made less money those first few years as a lawyer than I did when I was a paralegal before law school. Things were tight with the student loan debt.  Money was always a concern, to a greater or lesser extent.

But you can’t always measure wealth in monetary terms. Now in retrospect I realize there were many other advantages.    As a new associate lawyer, I had amazing autonomy.  If a client lied to me or wanted me to do something that wasn’t right – even if it comported with the rules, I fired them. It never occurred to me to ask my boss first. I knew he would back me – without question. There were no billable hour requirements.  My boss told me I would be a better lawyer if I took “frequent and long vacations.”   One day my boss and I were driving back from a deposition and came across a field covered with beautiful, golden dandelions in bloom. He pulled the car over and we stayed a long time, taking in the beauty of it – simply enjoying being a human being in the world.   We helped real people solve the problems in their lives. And a good deal of the time they were grateful to us.  We worked hard, there were some days we wanted to pull our hair out, but we were the captains of our ship.

I left not because I was unhappy but because I was still young and wanted to challenge myself with new ventures.  I figured I could always go back to private practice but I couldn’t always get hired by someone else to do something else.  My six years as a Main Street lawyer proved to be a very strong foundation for the rest of my career.  I was hired at the State Bar of Michigan as ethics counsel, answering the ethics helpline.  Only because I had had such a broad and varied practice could I help the attorneys who posed a vast array of questions every day.  And my general practice experience helps me with teaching law students as I can give them practical, hands on guidance.  I’ve walked the walk.

Looking back, starting out in a small town practice sure wasn’t what I had planned, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.   And I confess, I miss the Ladies Salad Luncheons…….

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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4 comments on “Reflections On Being a Main Street Lawyer

  • Excellent read! Like you, my life after law school graduation was already planned the summer after 1L. Every “I’ dotted, every “T” crossed… Yet, it is nothing like I planned that summer! Somehow, I ended up in Government Contracts and Procurement law…I wanted to be a Prosecutor….in a courtroom…every day! Ha! I haven’t seen a courtroom since my last Trial class in law school 3 years ago! But. We are the masters of our fate and in the midst of life’s curveballs, we learn to dance and have fun … and, we enjoy…….living. Cheers!

  • Great post!! I have been a “country lawyer in the City” for 31 years now. One of the best things that ever happened was not getting the BigLaw job we were all programmed towards. It forced me to look at alternatives, and I do not regret being an entrepreneur all these years. Law practice is often challenging, but its never boring and you essentially control your own destiny. No regrets, ever.

    • Sorry to be slow in responding to these great comments! Sometimes life has a wisdom of its own – and it always takes us where we need to be. Though trusting that at the time can be difficult. I like the “country lawyer in the city” lens…..! Thanks to Susan for the opportunity to tell my story – I know there are many like us.

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