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I saw this story in the ABA Journal about Hewlett Packard hiring a couple of graduates straight out of law school. My initial thoughts are who gives a crap? That a handful of Harvard grads have better employment options straight out of school isn’t exactly news.

Going Solo

I mentioned that after psychologically exhausting myself with a doc review gig, I decided to go solo. I encourage jaded lawyers to consider opening their own solo practice. Although I do regret attending law school and becoming a lawyer, I still feel like my best option for digging myself out of this hole is as a lawyer. Facts are facts, and at some point I had to face up to them. I went to law school, I’m ass-deep in debt, and I’m licensed to practice. And at the very least, a solo practices provides a facade of respectability and some potential for income.

There are some good resources for starting a solo practice:

MyShingle.com
The SoloSez Listserv (despite being hosted by the ABA)

I think some of the participants are overly optimistic; after all these resources are run and populated largely by lawyers that have been able to make ends meet with their solo practice. To date at least, my experience has been less shiny. However, if you are sitting around wondering how you will ever make ends meet, it might be worth considering putting that law license to good use.

Getting Started

When I decided to start my own practice, I rented some cheap office space near the courthouse and bought some used furniture. I obtained malpractice insurance, which set me back about $800 for my first year. To finance this, I borrowed about $3k from family. I was reluctant to do this, but it was necessary. Thankfully I was able to repay this in short order. If you want to open a practice, you are going to need some start-up capital.

It will be nearly impossible to start a practice without a spouse/partner/parents that can provide for your living expenses for the first year or so. Jay Foonberg, in his book, says you should have a years salary saved up before opening your practice; obviously for most younger lawyers this is an impossible barrier to entry. I don’t think that is neccessary, but you do need someone to handle your living expenses for a while and you need to recognize that even then, your overhead expenses and student loan payments will probably eat up most if not all of your income.

Getting Clients and Advertising

The biggest problem any new practice faces is getting clients. Initially, I went around the courthouse and introduced myself to the judges and their staff. I signed up to receive criminal appointments and GAL work, and I actually did receive some appointments. The problem with these cases is that the DA drags their feet and the grand jury took forever to indict my clients, and I ended up doing a lot of work on cases with no prospect of getting paid for a long time. Even when I do finish an appointed case, it may be months before I actually get paid.

Another means of getting clients was to join networking groups. I absolutely loathe networking, but going to chamber of commerce functions and other networking groups provided me with some good local contacts and a few cases or matters. However, having a few flat-fee items can be a good way to get new clients. Wills/estate planning, no-fault divorces, organizing an LLC- these are pretty easy and suitable for flat-fee billing.

Advertising

I think advertising is essential. Fuck anyone who tells you it is tacky to advertise, almost all major firms do it, or they have such a reputation that they have a steady stream of cases. You have to get your name out there. Admittedly, my attempts at advertising have been weak and half-assed, which is something I intend to remedy. But I have come to realize that advertising is your best bet for getting clients and making some money, and it is an example of spending money to make money. I have been reluctant to go into debt on something as risky as advertising, and now that I have some extra cash on hand I am more willing to spend on it. But if I could go back and tell myself anything at the start of my practice, it would have been to advertise as much as possible.

You will be tempted to spend money on phone book advertising; this is a waste unless you have a major advertising budget (as I can tell you from experience.) I probably spent around $500 my first year on small listings in the phone book, and I think I may have received two or three calls, none of which turned into decent cases.

The internet offers better solutions like free advertising on craigslist; you will get some weirdos but also a few paying clients. And this is a great place to advertise flat-fee services like no-fault divorces. Advertising with Google Adwords and Facebook seems promising, although I haven’t done so. However, it seems like a better use of advertising dollars than the phone book; most people I know tend to google something rather than pull out the yellow pages. And the capability of targeting your advertising to search keywords or status updates seems like it would allow you to narrowly focus your advertising.

Cable and broadcast advertising are also options. I have recently been looking into advertising on cable, and the prices are not as high as I would have expected. As an anecdote, I know a lawyer that started their practice at the same time I did (and went to a much crappier school); they borrowed like $50,000 and put it into lame TV commercials. They are bringing in at least six-figures a year, while I am rolling around in the dirt. TV advertising works.

Getting Paid

Get your money up front, or make sure the client is someone you trust enough to pay your invoices when you send them. My best clients are corporate clients; I bill them hourly and they pay their invoices within a few days or so. However, when it doubt, take a retainer/prepayment and put it in your trust account. I have had to fire clients on more than one occasion after their retainer ran out and they refused to pay. Consult your state bar on how to handle client funds, but a general rule of thumb is that you will have to wait as long as possible before getting paid.

Knowing What to Do

The biggest obstacle to starting a solo practice is the fear that you don’t know what you are doing or that you are going to commit malpractice. It’s been two years, and I still feel this way a lot. This fear can be beneficial in that it forces you to be diligent in the way you handle cases. Still, make sure your malpractice policy is up to date.

I truly think the best thing you can do is to locate your new office in a building or area where there are other solo lawyers. I have found that most solos and small firms are quite willing to help if they can. And having friends or colleagues whom you can ask a question, borrow a book, or just shoot the shit with can be an enormous help, both practically and psychologically.

In Summary

I’m not writing this to convince anyone to start a solo practice. It is up to you, and it will be informed by your own unique circumstances, and if you do take that road, it will be a difficult one. I started my solo practice because I was still committed to a career as a lawyer and I felt like I could make ends meet doing so. In some ways I have been disappointed. I certainly thought that a few years into my practice, I would be doing better than I am. It has been really shitty at times. On a few occasions, it has been fun. Most of the time, it is somewhere in-between. We have been fucked over by the law schools and the student loan cartel. We are deep in debt, and we have an education that largely didn’t prepare us to practice as lawyers. That is reality, and our only real option is to decide what to do about it. I started a solo practice, and for now, I’m muddling along and making ends meet.

I don’t know why, but this post on Above the Law about vapid cunt law students brought a smile to my face, even though the story itself is pretty groan-worthy.

However, the people ragging on this girl don’t realize that she is probably more on track than most law students. If you aren’t top 10%, probably the best career move a moderately attractive female law student can make is get a boob job. After my first semester of law school, I was surprised that several of the ditziest girls in our class came back with huge fake tits. And even though they were too dumb to string together a coherent sentence, plastic surgery opened doors for these boobs dunces that three years of busting my ass wouldn’t open for me. I think it is axiomatic that the bored old men doing the hiring at law firms would rather look at a nice rack for a few years before passing these girls over for partner, than have to put up with some studious nerd like me. And I can tell you, on the basis of information and belief, that it isn’t out of the question that these girls will put out for the right perks.

So law school ladies, if you are reading this and you want to salvage your career, convince Mom and Dad over the summer that your self esteem needs to… perk up. It’s not too late!

Worthlessness

Like many lawyers in my position, I am constantly looking for an escape from the practice of law. I was in the middle of the application process for a non-legal position I felt well qualified for… and even quite excited about. Today I discovered that I am no longer being considered. I felt really optimistic about this opportunity; now I feel miserable.

My wife even felt like it was a promising lead, so much so that for the past few weeks she had quit sending me positions to apply for. There is nothing more humiliating than operating your own law practice, only to realize that your loved ones have so little faith in your ability to succeed that they encourage you to look for other work. I know they mean well, but I don’t think they understand that they are tacitly indicating that they don’t believe I can succeed.

I understand why so many lawyers have substance abuse problems. When you feel like no one appreciates you, you’ve lost faith in yourself, you have little hope for the future, and you have a shitload of job related stress, chemical relief seems pretty tempting. (For the record, I don’t have a substance abuse problem, although I do foresee myself getting pretty blitzed this afternoon.)

Your unreasonably high tuition is paying for assclowns like this to get two paychecks:

Greg Royer ranks among the state’s top-paid employees, with a salary of $304,000. But that’s just part of his income. For nearly seven years, he’s also collected an annual pension of $105,000.

Royer, the vice president for business and finance at Washington State University, tops a long list of college administrative staff members who’ve been able to boost their incomes by up to 60 percent by exploiting a loophole in state retirement laws.

A Seattle Times investigation has found that at least 40 university or community-college employees retired and were rehired within weeks, often returning to the same job without the position ever being advertised. That has allowed them to double dip by collecting both a salary and a pension.

Much is said of the terrible doc review positions. My first post-law school gig was a document review “opportunity.” In retrospect, my doc review gig was probably a pretty decent experience compared to some of the NYC doc review sweatshops I read about. All the same, it can be a trap for the unwary.

My biglaw job had fallen through, and so I sent out hundreds of resumes. After a few weeks, I got a call from a decent firm and went in for an interview. The partner was pretty up-front with me; this was a part-time job reviewing documents. It was not an associate’s position, but he understood that I would still be looking for work and that he hoped this would allow me to make some money until something better came along. I took the job, and ended up working 30 hours a week at $20/hr.

To no avail, I continued my job search. The work itself was terrible; I was assigned to a cubby hole with a computer that was 15 years out of date and barely managed to function, let alone handle gigabytes of discovery data. The work consisted of clicking though endless discovery documents looking for material relevant to the litigation, and coding or flagging the documents. Many of the documents were essentially identical; for example, 10 years of employee logs of some sort. It was brain-numbingly tedious and boring. I developed complex keyboard gestures, to see how quickly I could click through, paste the relevant codes, and move on to the next document. I took an iPod with me to keep my brain stimulated, until the office manager told me this wasn’t allowed because it reflected poorly on the firm. Without mental stimulation of any sort, my productivity took a nosedive. Thankfully, the partner I worked for started giving me legal research assignments, which eventually led to drafting pleadings, briefs, and other legitimate work. Thankfully, the doc review consumed less of my time.

As if the boredom of the job wasn’t unpleasant enough, the lack of respect was worse. Actually, the partners at the firm were among the most respectful. In particular, my supervising attorney and I developed a mutual respect that endures to this day. However, the secretaries and other office staff made it very clear how low on the totem pole we contract attorneys really were. Some of them seemed to take sadistic pleasure in it; the aforementioned office manager particularly. Whereas the partners would introduce you as something innocuous, like “Bob is an attorney with our firm,” the staff seemed to go out of their way to point out that you were a part-time contract lawyer. The firm would throw parties, luncheons, and functions, and when we weren’t invited the staff would be sure to point it out and make it known. I don’t want this to sound like sour-grapes; I’m not a social butterfly and don’t particularly care for social events. But when you have worked hard to get through school and are trying to embark on a career, the last thing you want is to be emasculated at work. And I don’t understand the motivation to make a coworker feel like dirt. It seems like a bad idea from both a moral and managerial perspective.

I stayed there for over a year. As time wore on, I realized that this job was a dead-end. Even though no one seemed interested in hiring me, I realized that the firm was never going to make me an associate and that for better or worse, I had to get out of there. I couldn’t put my life and my career on hold forever, just hoping someone threw me a bone. I knew what the firm paid me; I also knew what they billed me out for- around $200 an hour. I decided that if someone was going to pay $200 an hour for me, I ought to see more of that than my paltry hourly wage. Eventually, I told them I was leaving to start my own practice. I’ll write about my solo practice another time, but I started the process of renting office space, buying furniture, etc. During my last week, after over a year with the firm and after I had already made some commitments to my new practice, the partner I worked with told me they had been having discussions about making me an associate there. Bewildered, I told him that if they made a decision, they should let me know. He never did.

As an epilogue, I went back to that firm as an invited guest at a reception they were having. I talked to several of the contract attorneys I had worked with, still slaving away at doc review. I asked one of them (from a top tier school) why she hadn’t moved on, and she told me with the economy as bad as it is, and with the hiring market dead in the water, she was happy to have any job at all. Even one that sucked.

The Jobless Juris Doctor posted yesterday about how frustrated he gets when law school apologists accuse him and other scambloggers of feeling entitled. He goes on to say that he DOES feel entitled to a job at the very least, when he was sold a fraudulent $100k+ bill of goods… and that is a reasonable position I suppose. We have all been fraudulently induced to mortgage our souls for a chance at a legal career.

However, I don’t feel entitled to a job. I do feel entitled to be treated like any other person in the country that takes on debt, and to be able to discharge that debt in bankruptcy if neccessary.

The crux of our sad position is that we have been sold a very expensive degree that provides very little opportunity for employment. Thus, it forces a substantial portion of J.D. graduates either into poverty, or entrepreneurship, or both. As I have mentioned, I did hang my own shingle and start a solo practice, but I did so reluctantly, and it certainly wasn’t the route I intended my career to take. It is a road paved with heartache, stress, and disappointment.

Most entrepreneurs that require start-up capital obtain a loan from a bank, an investor, a wealthy relative, etc. But if their enterprise fails, they have the opportunity to restructure or discharge their debt in bankruptcy and move on with their lives. That is why bankruptcy exists! On the other hand, newly minted lawyers who suddenly realize that their only path to a career in law is to open their own practice, do so having already invested $100K in the enterpsie, but if their business fails, they have no recourse.

I do feel entitled to higher education reform that at its core, reforms the way our bankruptcy system handles student loan debt. The banking-educational complex is corrupt through and through; it lobbied intensely to have Congress exempt student loans from discharge in bankruptcy. This created an economic moral hazard in the educational market place, and it is ruining lives.

Just as bailing out failed companies removes the market incentive for investors to invest wisely, preventing borrowers from discharging student loans removes the incentive for lenders and schools to act in a responsible manner towards their students. What does a lender have to lose in lending to an unqualified student, if there is little risk of the borrow ever being able to default? Likewise, why should the schools care about fudging employment stats, accepting unqualified students, grade inflation, or their students’ job prospects upon graduation, if tuition is guaranteed by ubiquitous student loans?

By exempting student lending from the rules of the marketplace, Congress has created a moral hazard that increases the likelihood that the unwary or unlucky will get put through the law school meatgrinder only to end up jobless, pathetic debt slaves. We may not be entitled to a job, but if law schools are going to leave us no recourse but a choice between wage slavery and hanging our own shingle, we are entitled to be treated by the bankruptcy courts like other entrepreneurs who took a risk and failed.