By the Millennial Esquire
During my first year of law school I turned to my soon to be wife and told her that I was going to open my own law practice right after law school. She looked at me in amazement (later I found out that was terror). I took elective classes centered around trial skills. Enrolled in a clinic focusing on trial skills. I even took law clerk positions that I thought would expose me to the world of practicing law.
During my last year of law school, I was hired as a Judicial Law Clerk. I turned to my wife again and said, “after this clerkship is over, I’m going solo!” She just looked at me and smiled (with a little less terror). During the last month of my clerkship I met with an attorney who offered me an Associate position. This derailed my plans for solo-right-after-clerkship. I took that position and began my career as a litigator. After a while, I felt I was ready to fulfill my dream, and I opened my own law practice (to which my wife was delighted). But in hindsight, despite all of the exposure I had during law school, I know I could not have opened this practice post law school. I vowed to discourage law students from starting their own practice before first learning the practice of law from a seasoned practitioner. Here are 5 reasons why you should apply to be someone’s associate, even if just for a year:
1. Law Students are Broke and Businesses Need Money
If you or your parents are rich, then skip to 2. The rest of you, keep reading. All of the money I earned during my second year summer clerkship was gone by the time I took the bar in July. I was lucky enough to make it through the summer supplementing my income by driving for Lyft. If I had decided to start a practice right after law school, I would’ve had to drive for Lyft until I got my law license in December of that year. That would have been 4 more months of driving drunk 20 somethings from U street to their pied-à-terre in Georgetown. Instead, I was able to earn income immediately and begin to build my bank account in preparation for the plunge.
There is no way that I would have been able to survive financially by starting my practice right after law school. You need savings and savings can only come from working before starting a business. I would have needed money for apartment rent, transportation and food, at the minimum. All this would have probably forced me to take out additional loans and put myself in even further debt, which is something I highly recommend only if you want to see your business fail.
2. You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
As a new lawyer and a millennial, you may think you have it all figured out. But the truth is law school does not prepare you to practice law. And the internships you thought were giving you real world experience, only gave you a writing sample to use for applying to post grad jobs. Only barred lawyers understand the difference between being a lawyer and a law student, and if you start a practice without first learning how to become the former, you will be setting yourself up for disappointment, heardache, and a lot more work than is needed.
Court rules and procedure are not taught in law school. Some clinics may only allow a student to scratch the surface. Each jurisdiction has its own court procedures and most of those procedures will not be found on Westlaw or LexisNexis. Knowing the law can only get you so far as a litigator, you need to be familiar with each court’s procedures. This only comes from learning from a seasoned veteran Attorney.
3. You Have a J.D., not an MBA
Even if you have an MBA, you have no idea how to run a practice until you are around someone that does. The structure of a private law firm is different from that of a traditional business model. For example, law firms cannot make money unless they can bill time for Partners and/or their associates. And you can only bill time for legal work done, not educating yourself about the law. This is different from a traditional business where a product is sold by a sales person. In that model, a sales person may sell 9 units in an hour and 1 unit the next, regardless of effort, they have sold 10 units and will be paid for the 10 units.
In a law firm model, you make more money billing a client to complete 5 legal tasks for 8 billable hours than you do completing tasks for 5 billable hours. How does one track billable hours, through billing entries. These entries explain to your client why it took you 8 to complete 5 legal tasks while another associate took 5 hours to complete 10 similar legal tasks. Knowing how to write good billable entries so that your client will pay for the former will require you to work for a more senior attorney who knows how to write good billable entries. A tautology, but an important lesson on why you need to work for an Attorney as an Attorney
4. You Haven’t Developed a Reputation or a Network
An attorney’s reputation is everything. Attorney’s obtain most of their clients either through past clients or other attorneys. I call this the Yelp effect. People are unwilling to engage a product or service they know nothing about. This is why Yelp has become so popular and why brand marketing has become a booming industry. When looking for an attorney to handle your contract dispute, are you going to hire the attorney with no reputation, or an attorney who was recommended by your friend, or has great reviews on the internet?
Your network is also important. When I decided to start my own practice, I was able to receive referral cases from other attorneys in my network. These networks can also help you learn what you don’t know. During my clerkship and after, I was able to develop relationships with more experienced attorneys. So when I decided to go solo, I had a plethora of attorneys I knew well enough to bounce ideas off of or ask procedural questions without feeling incompetent. But keep in mind, I only knew what questions to ask because of my experience as an associate. See how this is all intertwined.
5. There Are Not Enough Hours In the Day
As a new grad solo attorney, you have the opportunity to set your own fees, take your own cases, and build a life around your employment. Wrong! As a new grad solo attorney, you have to learn to practice law, actually practice law, learn how to run a law firm and actually run a law firm. There are simply not enough hours in the day to do it all at once and keep your sanity or commit malpractice. If you work for a small private firm for at least a year, you can learn so much more about practicing law and running a law firm than an e-book can teach you. As example, I point to the billable hour, client intake, client communication, trust accounts, etc. Competing those tasks correctly and efficiently takes time, practice, and experience. Once you are comfortable juggling those tasks, you will be much more efficient and leave more time to spend with family, go to happy hour with friends, and play golf. Becoming efficient in the administrative tasks will leaving more time to bill clients and make more money (see bit about 10 legal tasks v. 5).
Lastly, owning your own practice is a blessing. It has been the best decision I’ve ever made. But, starting a law practice before you are truly ready can be a curse and end your legal career before it even begins.
The Millennial Esquire is a trial lawyer practicing in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the District of Columbia.