This article was originally published in the August 2018 edition of the Idaho Bar’s official publication, The Advocate.
I know there are new attorneys out there who are feeling frustrated by their careers or who may not be finding fulfilment in the practice of law. If that’s you, you may be wondering if things would be better if you started your own practice. The answer, like most answers in the law, is that it depends. In my case, the answer is yes. My hope is that this article will help you decide if hanging your own shingle is the right thing for you.
My Story: Learning to Love the Law
I had my first glimpse of what life might be like as a lawyer when I was in the fifth grade. Two of my classmates got in a fight at recess. Ryan, who was known for having a temper, allegedly punched Paul, a popular boy. My teacher decided that the class would decide Ryan’s fate through a trial.
She asked for volunteers to represent Paul. Many hands arose. She then asked who would represent Ryan. No hands.
As we sat quietly for a moment, my fifth-grade mind figured that since my father was a lawyer, I’d probably be pretty good at it. I raised my hand.
My teacher let us “attorneys” have some time to interview witnesses. I learned that Ryan said something about Paul. Paul then insulted Ryan’s mom. So, naturally, Ryan clocked Paul upside the head.
At the trial, all I could think of saying was, “How would you feel if someone made fun of your mom?!” Everyone laughed. Ryan was found guilty and was sentenced to detention.
After recess that day, I saw Ryan leaving detention. He nodded at me and smiled. Although I never asked him, I felt like he was appreciative of my attempt to plead his case when no one else would. It’s a feeling I remember to this day. It’s a feeling I took with me to law school.
Fast forward a few years later, I found myself in Las Vegas doing insurance defense work. Although I enjoyed my colleagues and the clients, I did not find the work personally fulfilling. My work reminded me of the scene from Disney’s Incredibles where Mr. Incredible is sitting at his dingy desk denying insurance claims. I often told my wife that if I was still doing this as an old man, I would know that I did something wrong with my life.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Hey! There’s nothing wrong with insurance defense!” If that’s the case, I agree with you. There are many interesting legal issues that arise in insurance work. It’s just not a cause I wanted to devote my life’s work to.
I found myself doing some soul searching. I thought maybe I just needed a change of venue. I brought my family to Idaho. Then I thought maybe I needed to leave the law altogether. I tried to leverage my network to find some sort of general business management job. I also tried to start up a business coaching practice and even tinkered with selling cat products online (I still own the domain www.coolcatcrap.com).
Probably out of concern for my family’s wellbeing, my wife reminded me of an attorney that I often faced in my insurance defense work. This attorney represented consumers who were ripped off by car dealers. I would often complain to my wife that I felt like he was doing the type of work I would like to do. She said, “Why don’t you just do it?”
My wife’s promptings reminded me of that fifth-grade version of myself—the one who discovered that, win or lose, it could be personally rewarding to help those in need. I figured she was on to something. We started putting things in motion so that I could open my own practice with a focus on representing consumers.
In October 2017, I hung my own shingle in downtown Idaho Falls. I started from scratch—literally zero clients. Although my practice didn’t take off right away, I’d have to say things have gone smoothly. Each day I feel like I am helping people who have nowhere else to turn. Many of my clients were legitimately treated unfairly or unlawfully by businesses and could not find representation. One current client let me know he was on the phone for four hours just trying to find an attorney who would even give a free consultation on his issue.
Beyond that, I’ve been able to make a living for my family. I mostly have my wife, family, and the Idaho Falls community of lawyers to thank for helping my practice succeed so far.
I didn’t think I would ever say this, but I love being a lawyer! (At least most days).
Is Starting a Practice Right for You?
I discussed this issue with James Herring, a fellow new lawyer who started the firm Wielang & Herring, PLLC (www.whattorneys.com) in Idaho Falls just down the street from me. Although it’s a small sample size, we found that what we shared in common related to mindset and practical concerns. I will address each.
Develop the Right Mindset
1. Find a practice area you believe in.
You are going to be dedicating a substantial amount of time to developing a practice and working on specific issues. If you actually care about what you are doing, it will help drive you to keep on going. For me, I like helping individuals who were ripped off by businesses. For James, he likes helping business owners solve problems. The fact that we care about what we do helps us put in the time. This also helps you develop a niche in the marketplace.
2. Remember what attracted you to the practice of law.
I wanted to go into law to help individuals in need, but I didn’t know what that looked like. Working for large insurance companies was not compatible with my vision of what I wanted to do as a lawyer. It took me some time to figure out how to match what I liked about law with what I actually did for work.
3. Focus on Developing Your Skills.
Prepare for starting your own firm by using your current job to develop skills. I thought I was a smart person until I started practicing law. There were so many things to learn that I often felt lost. I remember being in practice for about a year and a half when a fifth-year associate suggested that we should serve an offer of judgment in a case. I had never even heard of an offer of judgment. I asked him how he learned about that. His response was that it just takes time. It really does. Many attorneys I spoke to as a new associate would tell me it takes about five years before you feel like you know what you are doing. For me, that was accurate. Even if you don’t love what you’re doing now, you can focus on developing skills.
4. Be prepared for ups and downs.
You need a support group. James has a partner. For me, my family understood the risks and supported the decision. Sometimes a third-party perspective can help you focus and solve problems. If you don’t feel like you have anyone to talk to, consider contacting the Lawyer Assistance Program through the Idaho State Bar. They are there to help attorneys who are experiencing stress and anxiety, not just substance abuse. They may also help you seek out a mentor.
1. Develop Relationships.
1. Develop Relationships.
James receives a fair number of referrals from the firm where he was formerly employed. I have a mentor who was opposing counsel in many of the cases I defended in the insurance arena. If we had burned bridges with former employers or opposing counsel, the growth of our respective practices would have suffered. In the words of Bill and Ted, “Be excellent to each other.”
2. Have some savings!!!
Having some savings set aside helps you feel better if when money doesn’t come in right away. After all, you planned for that, so all is going according to plan, right? It will take some time to collect on billable hours or reach a settlement in a case. Additionally, too much financial pressure can lead to bad decisions. For example, I once agreed to do some estate planning because I thought it would be nice to get the income. Estate planning is not something I know about or want to learn about. After spending nearly eight hours trying to figure out what needs to be in a will and how “per stirpes” works, I decided to give the client’s money back and referred them to an estate planning attorney. It was embarrassing….
3. Run Your Numbers.
Starting your own practice does not have to be expensive, but you do have to understand your financial situation. You will have to pay for bar dues, CLEs, and malpractice insurance in addition to your own monthly office and personal expenses. And let’s not forget taxes. You need to know how much you must make to cover all of these expenses. For me, focusing on meeting (or exceeding) your breakeven point is less stressful and more rewarding than measuring yourself against billable hour requirements.
4. Learn How to Operate a Law Practice.
There are numerous books about the ins and outs of starting and running a law practice. I went through each chapter of Jay Foonberg’s How to Start and Build a Law Practice. Solo by Choice by Carolyn Elefant is also a commonly used book that both James and I include in our reference libraries. If you want to get a glimpse into what operating a practice entails, these books are valuable resources.
5. Follow the ABCs.
In the business context, ABCs stands for “Always Be Connecting.” If you think about reaching out to someone or sending a thank you note. Do it. Don’t wait. One day I had the idea to run cookies by attorneys’ offices in the downtown Idaho Falls area for the holidays. I just did it. Two months later I got two cases from different attorneys I met doing so.
Last, when I was growing up, my mom often told us kids, “You are the captain of your own ship.” If you are feeling dissatisfied with your work, it is up to you to find a solution. At the same time, please realize you do not have to go it alone. As you make your decisions, there are many members of the bar who are very willing to help you along the way.