From Law School to Solo Practitioner: An Unconventional Path
There are a lot of things they don’t teach you in law school, including, as the title makes clear: how to enter the legal world as a solo practitioner. You may ask: Why isn’t this idea embraced? Well, the reality of the situation is that such a move breaks the traditional path to private practice. According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reports, the number of recent law graduates going solo in 2015 was set at 900, or 3.7%.However, according to the American Bar Association (ABA), more than 48% of the attorneys in the United States are in solo practice.How does this 3.7% eventually result in a 44% increase? Well, it can be argued that the “traditional path” to private practice can account for such a large gap.
In my opinion, the traditional path to private (solo) practice generally includes one of three options following law school graduation and passing the bar exam: (1) Work for a well-known firm, or (2) Clerk for a Judge, or (3) Work as a Government Attorney. Now, you may wonder why these steps would, or should be considered the traditional path, to which I would respond with one word: experience. Experience is a great tool, but it may also become a crutch. I have run across plenty of attorneys with much more experience than myself that I would not want to represent me, or my family, while facing criminal charges. Why is this? Well, though they may have 20 plus years of experience, experience does not always result in competence. That is not to say that experience does not correlate with competence, but rather that such a correlation is often overstated. There are plenty of young attorneys out there that are as competent, if not more competent, than their peers with the “experience.”
Now, I am not advocating against these paths, but rather trying to provide insight into another path less traveled. So, let’s get into the issues that come with passing up the traditional path for one less traveled.
This is one of the biggest issues a new attorney faces when attempting to go solo. There are some inherent expenses that come with a solo practice, such as: Office space, a legal entity, a logo, a website, business cards, legal research tools, and office supplies. Though this seems like a lot, there are ways to lessen the cost as long as you’re willing to work.
There are many websites that allow you to make a logo. For example, I made my logo at ( https://www.freelogoservices.com), which also provides business cards for a reasonable price. As for websites, you’ll likely want a domain, which can be purchased through a few different websites, but I got mine at (godaddy.com), which I will be able to keep for three years. Similarly, I was able to make my own website at (Wix.com), which makes it quite simple. As it relates to office supplies, there are a ton of different options. Though buying in bulk is cheaper, it may not be necessary so early on in your practice.
What about research tools? Of course, there are Westlaw and Lexis, but there are also free solutions out there. Google Scholar has actually come a long way. Similar to Westlaw or Lexis, it now allows you to save cases to a folder for later use. It also gives out a citation that can be used within motions or briefs in support of motions. Though it is not perfect, it is an option that can save money.
As it relates to office space, there are a few options when you start out on your own. You could just skip the Office at first, and work out of your house, and meet clients at a location that is close and “convenient” for them. On the other hand, you could find a group of solo-practitioners that share an office or suite and rent with them. This often is a good way to save money as you won’t need much more than an office to start off, and being around other attorneys is a good way to get “trickle down” referrals. Or referrals that the other attorney’s may not want. A few of those may cover your rent for the month.
2. Rules and Laws
If you’re like me, you may have realized during your bar exam preparation that there were a lot of things you didn't learn while in law school. Well, surprise, it happens again once you enter the legal world. Did any of your Professors preach about a praecipe? I doubt it, heck, you still might not know what it is, but you will need to if you are ever going to file a motion. What about a proof of service, or notice of hearing? How many of those did you draft in law school?
The unfortunate reality is that there are many practical things you will not learn from law school. Thus, if you want to go out on your own, you must learn these things on your own. Study the Michigan Court Rules, study the local rules for the court you’re in, and talk to the clerks at the court, they can help you. You may even want to find a mentor. There are many experienced attorney’s out there that are willing to help new attorney’s out. Asking never hurts.
Like overhead costs, client retention is one of the big issues a new attorney faces when attempting to go solo. I wish there were an easy solution for this, but in the criminal defense world, that is not the case in Michigan. One would imagine that coming out of law school it would be “easy” to gain appointments. However, that simply is not the case. Personally, I believe this is the largest hurdle for a new attorney going solo, especially in criminal defense. Why? Well, most courts in Michigan, including the district courts, require an attorney seeking appointments to meet a certain criterion. For example, in Wayne County, the attorney eligibility criteria for new attorneys includes:
All attorneys newly admitted to the Bar will be paired with a mentor as a pre-requisite to receiving assignments. As part of this mentorship you will need to provide written verification of having completed the following requirements:
A. The attorney must accompany his/her mentor to a pre-exam hearing, and arraignment on information, a plea, sentencing and jail visit. Observation of each event must occur within the jurisdiction of the Third Circuit Court Criminal Division.
B. The attorney must accompany his/her mentor to observe and thoroughly discuss at least two preliminary examinations and;
C. The attorney must provide written proof of having observed at least one completed Third Circuit Court jury trial from the attorney’s mentor.
CAP (or CLE credit) requirements are as follows:
A. If an attorney has 10 years or more of practice they must complete at least 4 CAP seminars—no more than 2 can be makeups.
B. If an attorney has less than 10 years of practice they must complete at least 6 CAP seminars—no more than 2 can be make-ups.
So, what does this all mean? Well, unfortunately for new criminal defense attorneys specifically, there are some bridges you must cross prior to being able to get ANY appointments whatsoever. Easy, right? Well, yes and no. It would be easy if CAP seminars or even CLE seminars were held every week. Unfortunately, they are not. Even more unfortunate is the fact that these conferences and seminars generally cost a good chunk of change.
However, many of them offer scholarships, and I know you’re thinking: but Will, I don’t have the time to put in applications for scholarships. I feel your pain. But, these applications are generally simple and can be completed within half an hour at the most. Further, there are a ton of people who simple think they don’t have the time to put in an application, meaning that these scholarships are easier to obtain than one would image. Plus, they can save you up to $500 you simply don’t have, or don’t wish to spend.
I would note that at the time of initially writing this, I had only been receiving criminal appointments from one District Court. I now receive them from five different District Courts, and one Circuit Court. It took some time, but there are other things you can be doing initially to prepare for the day you do receive appointments/a bigger caseload.
4. Time Management
Though this is not a huge issue to start due to the lack of a client base, it could become one if you let it. What do I mean? Well, generally, when you go out on your own you are truly out on your own. In that, you do not have a secretary or anyone else to do the little things for you. For example, I keep track of my firm’s expenses and miles driven on an excel sheet. If I forget to do this for a few weeks it becomes a hassle to re-track my steps. A calendar surely helps, but not everything you do as an attorney is scheduled. Add these “little issues” with bigger issues such as a deadline for motions, and it can become a bit overwhelming. Though there will be overwhelming days, and weeks, keeping organized and on-top of things will surely help.
Again, because I initially wrote this article (without publishing) on 7/25/17, or nearly two years ago, some things have changed. In the beginning, there would be weeks, plural, that I would have without any court appearances. Fast forward a year or so and there have been months where I have only had a few days without a court appearance. So, looking back on it, there were things I could have done while I was waiting for my workload to increase.
I could have created more content for my website. Content drives clicks and clicks can result in clients. I have continually increased the size and content of my website over the years, but I could have gotten a lot of it done in those early months, instead of doing it on the weekends or whenever I have the spare time. Take advantage of that extra time in the beginning, you will thank yourself later.
5. Peer Relationships
I, for one, overlooked this aspect of my practice in the beginning. It may seem like common sense to most, but I entered the legal world truly believing that competence and hard work would overcome the fact that I had little to no facetime with any of the Prosecutors or Judges that I would come across. That certainly was not the case. Unfortunately, you can’t go out there and expect everyone to believe what you have to say, it just doesn’t happen like that. You could be right, you may even be morally correct, but it often won’t matter in the beginning.
My first ever solo criminal defense case made this point painfully clear to me. It was a DUI 2nd Offense, and as is often the case when you first start out, it was for an old friend of mine. Long story short: there were some issues in the case that I believed would warrant a dismissal of the charges. However, the Prosecutor in the case, a city attorney who I have now come to have a good relationship with, disagreed. Not only did he disagree, but he went on to cite all of the prior criminal charges and convictions my friend had faced in past, as if it somehow proved my friend was guilty in this case. Instead of brushing it off and getting to the point, which was the underlying issue in the case, I defended the “honor” of my friend. This led to an unnecessary clashing of heads between me and the Prosecutor.
At the time, I didn’t know this Prosecutor, and I didn’t know any of the Judges at the Court. Fast forward two years and I am in that same Court at least once a week, if not more. Now, fortunately for me, the tension between myself and the City Attorney ended upon the completion of the case (DUI 2nddismissed with Prejudice), but it very well could have resulted in an unnecessary grudge that may have harmed my future clients.
Not only must you worry about your “reputation” with opposing counsel and Judges, you must find like-minded attorneys who practice the same type of law as you do. Again, I overlooked this aspect of my practice at first, but have done my best to make up for that oversight. So, how do you do this? Well, there are many options including: Bar Associations, Other Legal Associations, Continuing Legal Education classes, and of course Seminars/multiday Continuing Legal Education events.
Pay the membership fees, or event costs, and go to them. It will provide you with a medium to meet like-minded attorneys. These relationships go a long way, and can often result in referrals, and free legal advice. Personally, I have CDAM, or Criminal Defense Atttorneys of Michigan to thank for this. Their classes and seminars have led me to some great criminal defense attorney’s that are more than willing to help out whenever I may need it.
For example, maybe you have never been in-front of a certain Judge, or to a specific Court, and want to know what to expect. Well, if you create these relationships you’re likely to find someone that practices often in that specific Court who can help you out.
6. Patience and Determination
Though it sounds like something a coach may preach to his players, patience and determination are key when you go from law school to a solo practitioner. There will be times where you will feel as if you will never gain traction in this crowded legal world. You will see others that appear to be doing “better” than you. You will see some of your peers making “good” money, while you’re fighting to find a client that wants to retain you. Don’t let it get you down.
I have been there, heck, I am still there today, but I can promise you that the positives outweigh the negatives. You’ll never be the young attorney crammed into a cubicle doing everyone’s work for them. You won’t be asking someone if you can leave 15 minutes early from the office to make it to a doctor’s appointment, or your child’s event. You won’t be forced to practice law the way your boss wants you to practice law. You will have freedom. But with that freedom you must recognize that there will be bad days, weeks, and even months. Just stick to your values and keep working. You will establish yourself, whether it takes one year, or five, it will happen.
See NALP, Class of 2015 National Summary Report, http://www.nalp.org/uploads/NatlSummaryClassof2015.pdf(last visited July 25, 2017).
See Rubenstein Harvey, Silkenat James, Solo and small-firm lawyers: A renewed priority for bar associations, https://www.americanbar.org/publications/bar_leader/2010_11/3503/solosmall.html(last visited July 25, 2017).